Old Lakeview

Former church becomes neighborhood center in Lakeview and asks neighbors to dream with them

The spiritual foundation that was originally laid for a church at 10 Bidwell Street in Battle Creek remains intact even though the house of worship has begun a transformation into a neighborhood center.

After a merger of three United Methodist churches became official in July 2018, church leaders decided to make one of the church buildings – Trinity United Methodist – a center where residents of the Old Lakeview Neighborhood and beyond could come to gather, dream, and make plans for what they want their space to look like.

Janet Wilson, who serves as the Associate Pastor for Chapel Hill United Methodist Church and as Site Pastor at Trinity, says she began reaching out to residents of the neighborhood, part of Neighborhood Planning Council 3, in October. That initial outreach has involved speaking with area business owners and attending monthly NPC 3 meetings.

“A big piece of this is to let people see the actual building and start dreaming with us and to start meeting new people,” Wilson says. “Churches are intimidating and off-putting for some people. We have to think of what they may be thinking, ‘Does this have a look we need to be wary of?'”

As a way to break down any preconceived notions people may have, Wilson has taken her outreach efforts to a more grassroots and personal level by setting up a turquoise table in the parking lot on Thursdays with coffee and cookies. 

A short time after the building’s transformation began and Wilson started spending more time there, she noticed that the parking lot was a thoroughfare for people heading to a Dollar General store near the neighborhood center. Wilson saw this foot-traffic as an opportunity. She got the idea for the table, after reading a book titled “The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Backyard.” The author, Kristin Schell, painted a picnic table turquoise, put it in her front yard and began inviting passersby to “hang out and do life together.”

“So, I’ll sit outside in a space by the door and chat with people,” Wilson says. “This is a place where people can stop and have a cup of coffee and a cookie. It’s been the rhythm on Thursday afternoons and I’m trying to increase that now.”

She says, “people are sometimes reluctant to stop, but they have responded to friendliness and someone being there.” 

In addition to Turquoise Table Thursdays, Wilson and Trinity will host an open house and neighborhood party on June 27 from 5-8 p.m. “I’ve been working with some of the neighborhood businesses and will buy food from them for the party,” Wilson says. “We’ll also have games and music. This is just to say we’re here.”

Tim Conologue, NPC 3 Chairman and owner of JETCO Signs located at 302 Capital Avenue SW, says Wilson and the neighborhood center are welcome additions to a neighborhood whose diverse makeup is both its strength and its weakness.

“I think it’s great and something our community really needed,” he says. “This will provide more opportunities for people to meet and it’s going to offer more freedom for community organizers to have a place to meet. They allow our NPC to have our meetings there at no charge. We’d like to give a shoutout to them for allowing us to do that.

“We don’t have any community centers that I know of, so this is really a first. It is going to benefit our neighborhood.”

NPC 3 is the largest of the city’s eight Neighborhood Planning Councils, Conologue says, covering a geographic area from Riverside Drive to 20th Street and Columbia Avenue to Dickman Road.

“We have a decent size homeless population that tends to congregate in certain areas,” Conologue says. “They leave their trash and that is one of the biggest problems. There’s a spot on the side of the road next to my business where they hang out every day and there are places where they camp out. 

“If you go on the ramp to the Penetrator, to the right of Riverside you’ll see a campsite near the Millpond where they trashed one spot, moved on to the next one, and they just keep moving,” Conologue says. “Aesthetically, it doesn’t look right for Battle Creek.”

Business owners and residents in and around the Capital Avenue corridor look out for each other and take an active role in reporting criminal activity in the neighborhood, which has the highest rate of reported crime in the city.

Conologue says that this corridor is poised for an increase in commercial business growth, including medical marijuana facilities and a restaurant specializing in hot dogs. While not for or against medical marijuana businesses, Conologue says he sees such enterprises as an economic positive for the area.

From an economic standpoint, Wilson says there are a lot of residents living paycheck to paycheck and the diversity of Neighborhood Planning Council 3 is not clustered in specific areas, but represented street by street.

“Age-wise, there’s definitely a population aging in place,” Wilson says. “It’s such a post-World War II community in terms of the buildings and the age of the homes and yet there’s a lot of young families. When we started looking more closely, there were a lot more families and households than we expected.”

In 2015, 22.7 percent of individuals living in NPC 3 were between age 5-19, with the next highest segment representing people between the ages of 25 and 34, which represented 14.1 percent, according to the Environmental Systems Research Institute.

The ESRI study also found that the median household income was less than $15,000 for 20 percent of residents living there, however about 19 percent of residents made $50,000 to $75,000, and a little less than 10 percent made between $75,000 and $100,000.

Conologue says the area also has its share of rental properties with 91 percent of the home values below $100,000, according to the ESRI study.

Given these findings, Wilson says the neighborhood is a place where “it’s just going to take us time to understand what the needs and what kind of resources are here, and we won’t get to know that until we have conversations with people.

“We’re trying not to rush in with what we think they need. We want them to tell us and let us know what they have to offer. If we have a neighbor who teaches English as a Second Language or crocheting, that would be great,” she says. “It’s not us creating, it’s just giving them the space.”

The building of the former church now hosts two small worshipping congregations -- Jericho Temple and Zomi Baptist Christian Church -- who worship there on Sundays. The Jericho worship service is in the morning and the Zomi congregation meets in the afternoon. The rest of the week – Monday through Saturday – the neighborhood center is home to 10 different user groups, including the Battle Creek Area Moms Club, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Community Inclusive Recreation, which holds music classes there.

Wilson says the growth of the building as a neighborhood center has been very organic and is an outgrowth of the ministry of three churches that merged. Those other two churches are Chapel Hill United Methodist which operates as a church with regular worship services and a congregation. The third church, Birchwood United Methodist closed its doors and the building will be sold while the congregation merges with Chapel Hill and Trinity's.

“Trinity and Birchwood had been advancing in age and declining in membership for a while,” Wilson says. “They shared a pastor and he was retiring and he started having conversations about what might come next.”

These conversations had already been happening among the leadership of the seven United Methodist Churches in Battle Creek that included Birchwood, Chapel Hill, and Trinity. 

Wilson says the leadership of those three churches had six months of pre-engagement conversations about what a merger would look like which was followed by a vote on April 15 among the respective congregations which resulted in overwhelming support. The merger took effect in July 2018.

Funds to cover the cost of operating Trinity Neighborhood Center will be coming from the congregants at Chapel Hill UMC. Wilson says funding also will be derived from endowments and estate gifts and the sale of the Birchwood parsonage which has already occurred.  That parsonage was no longer be necessary as a result of the merger.

In the near term, Wilson says there are no immediate plans to charge for the use of space at Trinity thanks to Chapel Hill's fiscal health at this point. “We are in this place where we’re healthy and operating in God’s economy. We’re pretty efficient.”

“God has given us these resources,” Wilson says. “We want to figure out how to use them to best serve our communities in Battle Creek instead of holding onto them.

As the merger plan unfolded it was decided to make the Trinity building a community or neighborhood center. 

This shift is happening in mainline churches throughout the United States, particularly those in downtown areas with ample business space and experience in working with nonprofits, says Gregg Carlson, director of contracted services and senior consultant with the CPR. He is working with Battle Creek’s First Congregational Church, which has been renting out space to individuals and organizations. 

He says the shift happens as the congregation has gotten smaller and the building is no longer the right size for that congregation. “In many cases, churches choose to remain where they are and their congregations want to make their churches more of a community center.”

Pastor Wilson says one reason the shift is happening is that attending church services is not as much of a cultural expectation as it was 25 or 30 years ago.

“For a while, the question moved into how do we bring them here and now it’s more of how do we connect to the community and serve with the resources we have,” Wilson says. “We want our communities to thrive and the question is how do we do that? People will come to our churches when they’re seeking that connection, but the people that are there in the services want to see their communities thrive.

“Churches can get pretty insular. For us, this has been an expression of getting out of that mode. The church building isn’t the church, it’s community creating community.”

Some of the groups currently using the former Trinity facility in Lakeview give donations that help support the cost of running the building. Wilson says she has a pretty open-handed relationship with nonprofits and most of them want to support the neighborhood center in a way that works for them.

“One of our hopes is that this will be one place where people could have family reunions or baby showers. Those could have a building-use fee,” Wilson says. “We’re early in, so we’re taking one step at a time. It’s developing on its own, so we’re trying not to run too far ahead of it.

“It’s exciting. It’s way more exciting helping to build our community, rather than helping to build a new building.”

More information about Trinity Neighborhood Center is available on their Facebook page: FB@YourTNC which launched today.
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.