This Battle Creek church serves as an anchor for Urbandale neighbors

Trust is working both ways at Battle Creek's Christ United Methodist Church in Urbandale.

The church operates a food pantry, library, and clothes closet where everything is free and no questions are asked. With the exception of the clothes closet, which is staffed by volunteers, the little free food pantry and little free library are both standalone structures that offer sustenance for the body and mind on an honor system that appears to be working well.

Roger Ballard, a church member and Urbandale resident, says these projects are a reflection of the willingness on the part of the neighborhood and the greater Battle Creek community to work together to take care of those in need. He says a steady stream of donations keep all three enterprises going.

“ULABA (the Urbandale Level Park Area Business Association) provided $100 in funding for us to build a small giveaway food pantry that’s filled by the community with items that are taken by the community and we have that sitting right next to the little free library,” Ballard says. “These are both located in our parking lot.”

The food pantry is actually a stand measuring about 2 feet by 3 feet with two shelves that hold non-perishable items such as coffee; canned soups, fruits and vegetables; dried potatoes; and disposable baby diapers and wipes.

“Last week, someone made a whole bunch of sandwiches and put them in there,” says Connie Beatty, who volunteers as the church’s Mission Outreach Director.

The food pantry is open 24/7 so that people can come in at any time to take what they need and those in a position to donate can do so at their convenience.

“It’s not staffed, so it’s all based on honesty,” Ballard says. “We haven’t had anyone wipe the whole thing out. We didn’t give a thought to having someone coming in and wiping it out. We believe if they’re in need they get it and if they’re blessed, they will give back. It does go empty, but the next day when I look there are things in there. When people see it down, they know the need is there.”

By design, the pantry, library and clothes closet are set up to allow users to maintain their dignity in the face of struggles they may be having. Pastor Crystal Thomas says the clothes closet, which is open on Wednesdays from 1-6 p.m., has been organized to look like a clothing store with empty classrooms in the church’s basement transformed into individual departments that house clothing for women, infants and children, and men.

“The clothes are hung on racks and the volunteers even take the time to cut out little cardboard squares to put the earrings on,” Thomas says. “They have really taken pride in what they do. They make sure that things are easily accessible.

“People can shop here for free and it’s better than most clothing stores.”

The one restriction is a limit of 20 items per visit, but Beatty says she and other volunteers have been known to relax this rule if they see someone who looks like they could use a little bit more. She says volunteers and donations come from all over the community with the biggest needs being coats, blankets, and towels.

As of November 2018, one year after the clothing closet opened, more than 9,000 pieces of clothing have been taken, in addition to household items such as towels or blankets.

Thomas said it’s not unusual for a member of the congregation to bring in a hot pot of soup so that customers have something to eat while shopping.

The initial clothing donations came from Ballard, his husband and a good friend of Ballard’s who he got to know while living in St. Joseph. Ballard, who works for PNC Bank, relocated to Urbandale 11 years ago to be with his husband, Jim Eldridge, a photographer in the City of Battle Creek’s Assessing Department.

“Particularly with the clothes closet, the need is so great in Urbandale because of the number of single-parent families and unemployed individuals,” says Ballard who serves as the church’s Finance Chairman. 

“The sharing of the ability we have to give back is why we do it. But, we also have to be realistic and all of the outreach efforts mentioned here are things that have been realistic and sustainable on their own with not a lot of money.”

Thomas says the members of her congregation are very much mission- and outreach-driven.

The church’s history of outreach and service to the community dates back to 1902 when it began life as a Sunday School which met in the summer because the building couldn’t be properly heated in the winter. Thomas says the Sunday School served all religious groups, including Adventists who eventually moved the schoolhouse building to their Adventist Village in the Washington Heights neighborhood.

The church, now 117 years old, relocated to its current location and was originally named the Community Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1916 the church adopted soldiers who were part of a Bakery Company at the Camp Custer military base. Thomas says the servicemen were invited to worship at the church and treated to dinner at the homes of church members. More recently, she says, a sewing group was making lap robes for veterans of World War II who were taking Honor Flights to Washington, D.C. to visit war memorials, as part of Talons Out. 

Some of those lap robes are also being distributed to residents of area nursing homes.

“There’s always been a tradition of outreach here,” Thomas says.

In addition to ministering to the congregation at CUMC in Urbandale, Thomas also is the pastor for Washington Heights United Methodist Church. She began her new duties six months ago after serving as Pastor of the Linden United Methodist Church in the Flint area. 

“The founder of the United Methodist Church was John Wesley, a circuit rider, so you go where the church sends you. For the most part, churches are paired together by the gifts and graces of the pastor,” Thomas says.

Sundays are busy for Thomas who leads a 10 a.m. worship service at CUMC followed by an 11:30 a.m. service at WHUMC. Thomas says the two churches are totally different entities that do support work with different missions and goals.

“I am a modern-day circuit rider without the horse and buggy to get up and down the streets,” Thomas says.

She also is a member raiser and fundraiser, constantly seeking to increase her current 90-member congregation at CUMC while also making sure the books are balanced and the doors remain open so the outreach work may continue – something many churches are dealing with.

In 1961, the CUMC had a congregation of 652. Thomas says the current membership of 90 is an average age of 60 or above.

“We are not where we were, we barely have any children there,” she says. “I think attendance is down because our values have changed. I don’t believe people believe in God any less, but we are far-removed from the days when the only thing to do on Sunday was to go to church, especially with people working and kids sporting events.

“You don’t see generations worshipping together. We were one of only three families that had that when I was growing up. I still feel like God has a place in people hearts, but we’ve gotten so stretched for time.”

Empty pews often translate to empty collection plates so a monthly Swiss Steak Dinner held the second Saturday of every month, for 10 months out of the year, fills stomachs while also filling a funding void. Held at the church from 5-6:30 p.m., diners pay $10 per plate and they have the option of dining in or getting the meal to go.

Thomas says the dinner, which has been going on for decades, is staffed by volunteers and usually brings in more than 100 people. The dinner makes about $10,000 annually that is used to offset the church’s operating costs.

“At times this has been the thing that has kept the doors open,” Thomas says. “With an aging congregation, many of whom leave for the winter, things get harder. When you’re gone, you’re not sending tithes back. Things get stretched thin.”

“With the grace of God and the giving spirit of the church, we have not gone without.”

Ballard says the church is more than a house of worship.“This church is an anchor for the community,” he says.

In addition to providing free food, clothing, books, and a safe place to land, the church hosts exercise classes for seniors provided by the Kool Center; members of Boy Scout Troop 329 which has been meeting there for more than 60 years; and a Faith Circle which organizes a Baby Shower in February and March to collect items which are given to Alternatives of Battle Creek and the Charitable Union to distribute.

Outside of blood relatives, Ballard says the church is his and his husband’s family. He says the rainbow stickers displayed on the church’s windows and website are more than window dressing. “It’s a safe place for anyone to come to,” Ballard says. “My husband has been a member of the church since 1980. I think there was a little easier acceptance for myself when I came into the picture. He had come out prior to that and members were very accepting.”

Beatty says she was not a religious person when she moved to Battle Creek from North Carolina in 2008 to care for her grandmother. A chance encounter with the building changed that.

“I was totally depressed and I never went to church before. I was walking down the street and turned and looked at the word “Christ” on the church’s sign. I wasn’t a praying person, but I told God that if he wanted me to walk in there, he should let me do it. I wasn’t a praying person and it was very odd.”

What she found was a congregation that is “wonderful, very loving and giving and very community-oriented” and that, she says, “is a big deal.”

“I get up every morning and feel good,” Beatty says. “I would rather help somebody else than worry about my own problems.”

Thomas says congregants such as Ballard and Beatty symbolize the United Methodist Church’s motto of “Open Doors, Open Hearts, and Open Minds.” She says what she has seen in her tenure so far is a church that is a refuge for so many. 

“I wish we would see more people on Sunday so we could attend to their spiritual needs as well,” Thomas says. “As a church, we have been trusting in God and service to all in our community. We are reaching out to be the light in a dark place.”
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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.