Eastside Neighborhood

Sunnyside Methodist Church: Making a home on Kalamazoo’s Eastside

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.

At Sunnyside Methodist Church on Kalamazoo’s Eastside, the congregation is considered more than just the people who assemble for worship each Sunday.

“A hundred people might worship here,” says Pastor Matt Weiler, “but thousands of people in the neighborhood call this their church.”

Among those counted are anyone who visits during the week, either to use the church’s Free Store or pick up food from the Loaves and Fishes Pantry. It also includes anyone who helps out or partakes of Sunnyside’s large and open free community garden.

“We can’t define the congregation by who we see Sunday morning,” says Weiler, who points out 4,000 individuals have registered as members of the Free Store, which is now in its sixth year. 

The congregants, he says, are all those who affiliate with the church whose core mission is to be the “front porch to the Kingdom of God,” and whose focus is on relationships, rather than rigid church rules.  “We’ve done funerals and ministry for people who have never set foot in this church on Sunday, but who still call me Pastor,” says Weiler.

In what has been a transformative journey over the last seven years, Sunnyside has become an Eastside neighborhood church, Weiler says. It’s a journey that hasn’t been without its challenges, but the rewards have been plentiful. 

“The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, would say the world is my parish. We hope that all of the people that use this church, whether for the pantry, the garden, worship or the Free Store, can call it their home in some capacity,” says Weiler. “And many of them do.”

Without moving, Sunnyside Methodist Church has found its Eastside home.

 ‘Messy, progressive work’: adopting an anti-racism lens 

The Sunnyside of today is very different than the Sunnyside nine years ago when Weiler, former Pastor at Portage Chapel Hill Methodist Church, and his wife, Cara Weiler, a social worker and also a deacon at Sunnyside, came aboard.  

At that time, Sunnyside existed as a rather self-contained congregation. In an effort to connect to the community, the church joined Interfaith Strategy for Action and Activism in the Community (ISAAC). 

In 2012, ISAAC, as part of its mission that year to foster youth development, initiated a Spring Fling, an Eastside Block Party that closed East Main, and that became, by the accounts of so many who attended, a catalyst for neighborhood change. 

Many seeds were planted at the block party, including those for the formation of  Eastside Networking (ENet), a group of individuals, business owners and nonprofit leaders who support the Eastside and which is still active today. The overall experience had a profound impact on Sunnyside’s congregation.

“We very quickly learned the Eastside is a neighborhood with great stories and beautiful people and lots of things happening, but it is so often overlooked by Kalamazoo,” says Weiler. “You don’t have to drive through the Eastside to get anywhere so it’s very easy to miss it.”

After the Spring Fling, the church’s focus fundamentally changed. 

“That was, for the congregation at the time, a real moment of inspiration in realizing how detached they were from the neighborhood and it pushed us to organize the church to be in relationship with the Eastside neighborhood,” says Weiler, but the process of how and in what capacity had to evolve. 

The church began looking for ways to serve the neighborhood. “We recognized that the things we had the capacity to address, in addition to relationships, was the basics of clothing and food.”

So the church launched the Free Store, which offered clothing and small household items, at the old Heritage Hall on East Main. 

“The Eastside is a food desert,” says Weiler, “and while Loaves and Fishes distributes two million pounds of food annually, none of their distribution sites were on the Eastside. So we felt it was really important to address food access in the neighborhood.”
That was a start. 

“About four year ago, we realized a lot of what we were seeing on the Eastside and greater Kalamazoo in terms of injustices, poverty, broken relationships, drug abuse, all had racism at the root,” says Weiler. “We began to explore what it means to have an anti-racism identity.”

The church sent parishioners and board members to trainings for Eliminating Racism and Creating/Celebrating Equity (ERACCE), which was formerly co-directed by Sunnyside’s B. Jo Ann Mundy, Pastor of Worship and Justice at Sunnyside. 

“For Sunnyside, the most valuable thing we can offer to the neighborhood is to work out of the firm belief that if we’re going to try and do good in the neighborhood, the best way we can do that with integrity is to do it through the lens of anti-racism,” says Weiler.

Sunnyside Methodist Church, in a split with the United Methodist Church, is open and affirming.
And the anti-racism work has had a profound impact on all involved. For Emily Burns, a Global Mission Fellow and volunteer coordinator at Sunnyside, the anti-racism work has been transformative. “This journey is unlike anything I’ve experienced before,” Burns says, “It’s chaotic, but it’s holy sacred chaos. It creates a depth in how we do our work and how we can create relationships.”

“It’s messy, progressive, religion,” says Weiler. “It’s messy here. When you do anti-racism work, it requires us to dismantle and break down very traditional white institutional ways of being.

“And there’s nothing intuitive about that. You make mistakes. And even when you do it right, you’re not even certain if you’re doing it right.”

With the church’s focus on inclusion, it was discouraging for staff and parishioners when the United Methodist Church recently voted to tighten the ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy. Many perceive the national vote as the church closing its doors to potential members. Sunnyside Methodist Church, in a split with the mother church, is swinging its doors wide open, both to their Eastside neighbors and to LGBTQ people, a commitment posted on the church’s Gull Road marquee.

“We are actively resisting denominational policies of exclusion,” says Weiler. “This is a safe space for LGBTQ persons. Sunnyside is a welcoming, affirming congregation.”

From patron to director: Personal investment grows the Free Store

A few years ago when former Eastside resident Rashawnda Dick first visited the Sunnyside Methodist Free Store, she wasn’t sure what to expect. She was in crisis and needed supplies for herself and her two children.

But during that first visit, Dick felt so welcomed, she quickly ended up volunteering to help the staff handle the rush of clients. “I enjoyed it so much,” says Dick. “It felt like home.”

Four years later, Dick is the Co-director of the Free Store, which has since moved from the old Heritage Hall to Sunnyside’s basement. She oversees volunteers, helps set policies and inventories donations. “When I started, I was really in need. My kids needed some clothes,” she says. “Now I’m paid staff.” 

“It helps the Eastside because there are not many free stores,” says Dick. “We’re the only one that I’m aware of and people can come back as much as they need to.

“It makes me feel good when people are smiling when they leave, that they got that thing that they need,” she says.

Sunnyside’s Free Store arose out of a trip to a conference in Columbus, Ohio that several parishioners took. They were inspired by a Free Store in Ohio, which is open five days a week, and brought that idea home, says Weiler. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel.”

Over 4,000 people are registered to use Sunnyside’s Free Store, which is open on Tuesdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
When you shop once at the Free Store, you become a member, and can come as often as you like. The store is open Tuesdays, from 6 to 7:30 p.m, with a popular optional prayer service at 5:30 p.m. 

Because families often come together, organizers noticed there were children who didn’t have anything to do “while Mom and Dad were shopping,” Weiler says.

So, with the help of a Youth United Way Grant, the church has begun Reading for Tomorrow, a literacy program to do “double duty,” says Weiler. The program, in its pilot year, offers kids a healthy snack and 20-minute reading sessions with parishioners, Pastor Mundy, and Western Michigan University interns. 

“The primary value of the Free Store is the relationships over and above goods and services,” says Weiler. 

Sunnyside’s sunny side: Growing food in a food desert

Early on at a church board meeting following the Weilers’ move to Sunnyside, Deacon Cara Weiler looked out of the window and mused, “We have too much grass. That’s wasteful.”

In 2010, a community garden was conceived, and many who have passed on Gull Road have witnessed its fruition. What started with individual members putting in plots and tending those plots evolved into a system where people would manage the garden.

The garden has since evolved. Sunnyside’s garden, located on its sunny side of the church and off Sunnyside Drive (the church’s namesake), has become an open and free growing space. Those who can help, help, and those who are hungry or in need, can partake of a few tomatoes, raspberries, grapes or whatever happens to be harvestable without asking. Burns calls it “a foraging garden.”

This year, in an effort to increase collaboration in the neighborhood, Sunnyside will be partnering with its church neighbors a few doors down Gull Road, Fresh Fire AME, as garden caretakers.

Under the careful and loving stewardship of Elder David Newhouse, retired Methodist Minister, says Weiler, the garden over the last few years has grown, now including blueberries, grape vines, additional beds, and even a fledgling orchard.

“People often say, ‘Put a fence on it,’” says Weiler, “But that would be missing the point. We don’t ever want to put something on it that would look like it has a barrier.”

Instead, the church’s philosophy is to plant enough for everyone, including hungry creatures, such as groundhogs, rabbits, deer, and even slugs.

“David does not let them win,” says Weiler. “He just keeps making it bigger so there is enough for all. We really mean all.”

The Eastside’s Sunnyside: Home at last

The Sunnyside community garden, which is now nine years old, grows each year. Last year, a small orchard was added.The Free Store, the food pantry, the community garden, and the anti-racism training and practice, have fundamentally changed Sunnyside’s focus as a congregation and its relationship to the neighborhood. But what’s still most important to the church, says Weiler, is the individual relationships themselves.

“When we started down a trajectory of really engaging the Eastside neighborhood, the end result, six years later is a really significant identity change for Sunnyside,” says Weiler. “The last few years have changed our focus in the neighborhood, but most importantly, they’ve changed the church’s identity.”

Since that ISAAC-sponsored Spring Fling, Sunnyside considers itself a neighborhood church, not just a church that happens to be on the Eastside.

“For Sunnyside, it was a game changer for the congregation. It really put the church on a journey of rebirth and new growth.

“In terms of the overall development of the Eastside, I’ve seen tremendous growth, networking, relationships and positivity happening in the neighborhood,” says Weiler, “at a minimum, just because people know each other now."

Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.