Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
As the leader of Washington Heights United Methodist Church, Pastor Monique French says God did not intend for her to limit her interactions to her congregation within the four walls of that building.
Acting on this belief, French built relationships in the community and then went on to run and became Calhoun County’s new District 2 County Commissioner. She was one of three county commission candidates who ran unopposed in the Nov. 9 mid-term election. The other two candidates were incumbents Derek King, District 5 commissioner, and Tommy Miller who will represent District 7.
French says she decided to run because of her passion for the community and the hope she has for its transformation. Her district includes parts of Washington Heights. Through researching the history of that community, she says she learned that it was at one time very affluent.
“I just want to make it a place that people are proud to call ‘home’ again,” French says.
Her district is bordered by Jackson Street to the west, Wagner Street to the east, Capital Avenue to the south, and Washington Avenue to the north. However, she says the community she talks about encompasses more than these boundaries and she intends to pay attention to what’s going on inside and outside of the lines that define District 2.
Of the constituents in her district, French says she thinks they were represented by her predecessors, “but, I think there’s still a need for their voices to continue to be heard. I need to just encourage people to be involved.”
In her discussions with residents in her district, she says a frequent request made to her was that she bring back information from the County Board meetings that are pertinent to the community, share it with them, be their voice, and speak on their behalf. The majority of those she heard from were middle-aged and older. She says she’ll be looking for opportunities to talk with and listen to younger residents.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to serve,” French says of her role as a County Commissioner. “This is really new and I don’t know what to expect
While representing the people of her district, she says she will continue the work she started after moving to Battle Creek from Saginaw three years ago to become the leader of Washington Heights United Methodist Church. That work has grown to address seven components — the spiritual, physical, mental, financial, intellectual, occupational/entrepreneurial, and environmental areas of each individual’s life. These components are part of the church’s vision and mission and addressing each one takes many different forms.
Three days a week, the church offers three hot meals to anyone in the community. These are opportunities to gather over a meal and form relationships, French says. They also offer a Heroes Ministry that provides people in the community with free clothing, household items, and furniture.
French says slides in a playground area for children have been upgraded and basketball courts were re-surfaced and nets replaced. An outdoor fitness center and outdoor walking track provide safe and welcoming spaces for people to exercise.
“You have to look at the entire person. It’s hard to watch somebody who’s hungry. Saying that ‘I’m going to pray for you’ isn’t enough. You have to feed them. This is the approach God has given us and this is how we address those seven components. We either provide services for them here at our church or link them to services in the community that they need.”
Among the initiatives French wants her constituents and others in the community to watch out for is the “Recover Our Neighborhood” project. It will include infill housing projects, address the missing middle-income wage-earners, add a variety of housing options, the purchasing and rehabbing of older homes, and continued blight elimination and beautification work in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
The goal of the program is to provide opportunities for residents to rent with the option to buy their own homes and begin building generational wealth, she says.
“We want to bring the beauty and vibrancy back to this area by providing people with opportunities to make a good income and increasing home ownership,” French says. “This will take care of bridging that generational wealth gap.”
The estimated cost of the project is $15 million and French is working to identify funding sources. Her church received
a $360,000 allocation from the city’s pool of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds
that have been used for beautification projects that include the cleanup of debris and the planting of flowers and shrubs.
She says the enthusiasm that brought her to Battle Creek has grown and having a seat on the County Commission will enable her to work for the positive change she knows is possible.
“I saw the potential and possibilities before I came here,” French says. “I knew what a great place this could be and I know how beautiful, thriving communities help to stimulate their local economies and build brighter futures. Meeting and talking with people and listening to the hearts of people just inspired me to become more involved.”