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New life for an old space

Once-faltering local church leases space to advance special ministry in mutual win-win

By Jessica Connor

COLUMBIA — A smooth slick of dust once coated the tables, chairs and shelves on the bottom floor of the church’s education building.

Books lay open, pens marking the very pages that had last been read six, seven, maybe 10 years prior. Colorful lessons were gray with disuse, all activity frozen in time.

It was the saddest thing I ve ever seen, like a nuclear bomb had hit,  said the Rev. Daniel Burbage, pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church, Columbia.

But today, thanks to a revitalizing spark of mission and ministry to its community, St. Mark is finding new life. The church s most recent bold move “ renovating and then leasing a full floor of its space to the United Methodist advance special ministry Interfaith Community Services “ means St. Mark is beginning to bustle with activity and growth. Members are excited, and the community now sees vehicles parked outside throughout the week, people coming and going.

With no cars, people would think this place was dead,  said Burbage, who lives down the street with his wife and two young children. Now when people walk by, they see activity and life. It s a good thing. 

Since the fall, when Interfaith s staff moved in, members say they see a huge change.

It s vibrant now, and very rewarding to see,  said member Beth Barry, who was born into the church in the 1950s and remembers being a child during its prime. It gives us hope for the future and what s in store for us. 

Finding its feet

Situated in the Earlewood community of Columbia, St. Mark was once a 500-member-strong church with a large sanctuary, massive education building and active youth program in its 1950s heyday. But the church saw tremendous decline after the economic downturn and urban flight of the 1960s and 1970s. After the millennium, St. Mark had 30 in worship on Sundays “ 40 if they were lucky. Most of its members commuted in from suburbs like Irmo, and the church was disconnected from the very community outside its doors. While mission oriented, they interacted little with their Earlewood neighbors, many of whom were extremely low-income and lived in Section 8 housing just blocks away.

It was not good,  said Burbage, who arrived at St. Mark in 2006 as a supply pastor while still in seminary; now he is a full elder.

But the Earlewood community was starting to find its feet shortly before the time Burbage arrived. A host of younger, more affluent couples had rediscovered the community and were fixing up older houses or building new ones nearby. Burbage and his wife were among them.

Slowly, the community s revitalization began to impact St. Mark. Members looked around and realized that, while once they were a hub for youth ministry, now they had three children in worship, no vacation Bible school and no children s sermon.

It was very depressing,  Barry said.

Soon after Burbage came as pastor, members had had enough of their identity crisis  and decided to seize upon their history and natural passion for children s ministry as a way to find their new path. They soon reinstituted and expanded the reach of a fall festival for neighborhood and church children.

I think that s when the church s eyes were opened,  Burbage said. They said, ˜Wow, there s kids out here! We can do this! We can help. 

As church members got to know the neighborhood families, they realized how deep the impact of poverty ran. They started noticing how many of the children ran around without shoes “ simply because they had none. Many were astonished one night to see two children fighting over some leftover chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese.

Inspired to realize they could possibly make a difference, they decided to organize a VBS targeted to the Earlewood neighborhood. Instead of a traditional weeklong VBS, they did a month-long one held only on Wednesday nights. The church rationalized the longer time period would allow for a longer time of bonding.

As the reach into the community continued, the church started growing. Their worship attendance doubled, with many new members joining their ranks. They began a clothing collection for children living in a nearby low-income apartment complex. Reaching out through Earlewood s Facebook page and the active neighborhood association, the church offered up its space, and Alcoholics Anonymous, dog training and community meetings soon began.

A natural fit

And as their growth continued, members grew increasingly dissatisfied with so much wasted space on campus. They fixed up the sanctuary and fellowship hall, and cleaned up the unused bottom two floors of the education building. But those floors were still empty and virtually unused. Talk circled about using the very bottom floor for something “ or someone.

One of St. Mark s newer members, Trahern Cook, was very much in favor of this.

I think everyone felt sort of like, ˜Let s breathe some new life into it,  Cook said.

Burbage meanwhile had been named District Mission Secretary for the conference Board of Global Ministries, and he was beginning to know all of the advance special ministries in the Columbia area. As his passion for this outreach and these ministries grew, he began to think how St. Mark could help.

With the help of
the Rev. Michael Henderson, Burbage soon came to know Marga McKee, executive director of Interfaith Community Services, a group that shares a lot of the same core outreach goals as St. Mark.

Interfaith needed a new home and more affordable rent. And St. Mark had the space.

It seemed natural to put them together,  Henderson said, noting the space-sharing not only helps Interfaith and St. Mark with practical needs, but also further strengthens the connection.

Thanks to a $7,000 Columbia District conference congregational development grant, St. Mark was able to renovate the bottom floor for Interfaith.

In the fall, Interfaith moved in.

A model for other small churches, ministries

McKee said renting space from St. Mark has been a very good thing  for Interfaith Community Services.

Interfaith started in the 1960s as a collaboration of six big downtown Columbia churches to start an urban service center, helping people from the homeless to the mentally ill. Through various programs, they help at-risk families get a helping hand out of poverty. But like most nonprofits, they struggle with funding. They also need to be in constant connection with the community so they can evolve.

McKee said moving to St. Mark puts them directly in a community that can benefit from its services. Already, they are linking up with a nearby apartment complex that has a lot of single mothers living in poverty who need help with services like childcare, nutrition, job placement and more “ all things Interfaith can provide.

We ve all agreed Interfaith Community Services needs to be a part of the community, and this is giving us the opportunity,  said the Rev. Diana Westerkam, retired United Methodist pastor who is president of the Interfaith board.

Westerkam said the move is a big help to Interfaith, but she also knows it is helping St. Mark, too. She thinks the opening of St. Mark s unused space to a ministry can be a model for other small churches in similar circumstances.

Churches are dwindling and they do have these spaces that can be used,  Westerkam said. I think lots of churches could benefit from such a partnership. 

McKee said she hopes this partnership has started a movement. 

With all the advance specials we have, there is no reason we shouldn t be teaming up and partnering with a local United Methodist Church,  McKee said.

˜The perfect storm

For their part, St, Mark members are extremely pleased with the partnership.

Cook said it is good for St. Mark on many levels: it s an outreach that fulfills their mission, it gives those receiving services from Interfaith the opportunity to get to know St. Mark, and it speaks well for the church to the community.

It s part of giving,  Cook said. Instead of ˜Here s our space, let s be protective about it, it s more like, ˜Let s share it, open it to the community to do something positive. Let the community know we re there. 

Barry said it has been so fulfilling  for the congregation to watch their church get new life and to help be an active part of that life.

It s just been great for both of us “ the perfect storm,  she said.

For Burbage, the win-win  exemplifies how churches and ministries can grow in this new day as they fulfill Christ s call.

The church needs to figure out the needs in the community, and when they can do that, they can be in ministry,  Burbage said. The church is more than a building, but the key is finding the connection. We mission to children; Interfaith Community Services ministers to families.

God has a way of bringing things together. 

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