Seneca Street UMC: A haven in Buffalo
Though jobs left the area during the Rust Belt Era – and with it many people – one part of Buffalo has a neighbor that will always be there: the Seneca Street United Methodist Church.
As the congregation dwindled from several hundred to a dozen, the Rev. Brian Rotach, pastor at the Seneca Street UMC, said the congregation felt called to connect to the area’s children. The church established a Sunday breakfast and dinner to feed the community – approximately 70 people each week, an after-school program, and a seven-week summer program – which includes a Vacation Bible School, reading camp, and a field trip at the end of each week.
“We’re here because the kids are here,” Rev. Rotach said.
The church began the programs, but the not-for-profit Seneca Street Community Development Corporation (SSCDC) grows the programs. Cheryl Bird, the board chair of the SSCDC and wife of Rev. Rotach, started the not-for-profit organization in 2009 to bring additional resources to the neighborhood. The SSCDC has developed health, education, and job training initiatives for the community.
“We work together with the residents in the neighborhood to help improve … their educational opportunities, their job capabilities, their health capabilities, so we can continue to grow the neighborhood to be different for the next generation,” Bird said.
The children that the church and the SSCDC serve face many challenges, including generational poverty and household instability.
“Fortunately, The United Methodist Church is here,” Rev. Rotach said. “This has become the district’s church and now the Conference’s church. At this moment, there are people from at least eight other United Methodist churches working as volunteers among our 80-something children in reading camp today.”
One of those churches is the Duluth First UMC in Georgia, Rev. Rotach’s sister’s church, whose volunteers help with the reading camp for two weeks each summer.
“I think we need more of this,” said Charlie Doerlich, a SSCDC reading camp volunteer from Duluth First UMC. “Even though it’s just a short two-week period, I think there is a lot to gain both for them (the kids) and for us.”
Natalie McHale, a SSCDC volunteer from Florida, has helped out with the reading camp for seven years and said she really enjoys working with the kids.
“I want to see them improve, and I want to see them go through their schooling and eventually graduate from here and then continue on in their school during the year,” she said.
And the church is starting to see results from the programs, as an increasing number of individuals in its programs are graduating from high school.
The church also hosts a teen-only program each Friday. Seneca Street UMC hires the teens as part of the summer staff, providing many of them with their first work experience and educating them through the job readiness program about how to fill out an application, how to interview, and more.
“I think the church fills a role as it’s just a safe place,” Bird said. “It’s a welcoming place. It’s a place where someone will listen to you and care about you and try and help you. We’re not going to do things for you; we’re going to try to do things with you or find resources to help you do things on your own.”
Rev. Rotach said Seneca Street UMC exists to “live out the gospel,” referencing the story of the good samaritan as well as the story of the prodigal son.
“Every one of us, me included, has needed some second chances,” he said. “And so this is a place where a lot of people who may have made some serious mistakes can get some second chances.”
In addition to the church’s other programs, it hosts Narcotics Anonymous meetings three nights each week. It also distributes coats in the winter, and handed out food to the community when the November 2014 snow storm buried Buffalo.
“Hopefully it (the church) has been and will continue to be a haven to get off of the street and come to a place where everybody knows your name and is glad you came,” Bird said.
Seneca Street UMC has been around for 125 years, but without the generosity of donors, the church would have closed its doors a long time ago. It resides in a very poor neighborhood in Buffalo, and the offering each week is usually less than $20. Bird calls Seneca Street UMC a “mission church” and joked that it’s “the world’s biggest recycling bin” that takes donations of any kind to equip the facility. It receives financial support from Reaching Our Neighbors Ministry Oversight Team grants and equitable compensation among other Conference, district, and local sources.
“We are supported from the outside by individuals, by churches, by organizations,” Bird said. “The churches throughout Western New York and in other parts of the country have been our major support for many, many years. And people may send $5, or they may send $100, or whatever, but that just keeps us going. And somehow we never really think we’re going to be able to make it, and then another check comes in.”