Willow Mission: From pew to pulpit
July 23, 2015 / By Susan Hollowell Hardy
The current pastor at the Dunkirk First United Methodist Church is one example of someone transformed by a mission that grew into ministry. Reaching Our Neighbors (RON) learned of Willow Mission through our annual grant application process. In 2014, Willow Mission received $5,000 to support and extend its ministry to neighbors in need in the Cornerstone District.
Breakfast at Sally's. (“Sally's,” of course, is a term for The Salvation Army.) As Pastor Cole was then a layperson, she brought the book to the attention of her pastor at the time, as well as the congregation at Dunkirk First. She had experienced a call to begin a ministry like those she had read about in the book. Within a few years, this moved her from a place in the pews to serving as a half-time local pastor at the Dunkirk First UMC.Willow Mission began when Pastor Judith Cole read an account of the homeless years of Richard LeMieux in his book
Willow Mission's name was inspired by Willow, the little dog in LeMieux's story. When LeMieux was in distress, his dog never left his side. Pastor Cole shared that her congregation wanted to “ ... offer love without judgment for those coming in for help.”
This call has transformed many rooms of their large church building. Part of the basement became a place for homeless men to sleep safely at night and to have access to laundry facilities and showers.
“We are the only shelter for homeless men in the northern part of the county. The only other shelter is an hour away to the south,” Pastor Cole said.
By RON's May 2015 evaluation, Pastor Cole was able to say, “We have housed 22 men in our shelter since November 2014. Eight have gone into permanent housing, two moved to the Buffalo City Mission, five are still with us, and others left for undisclosed locations.” She updated this in early July 2015 to explain that four of the remaining five had recently found permanent shelter. In their 2014 funding application, Pastor Cole noted: “Over the past three and a half years, we have housed 25 women and children, and 140 homeless men.”
Another basement room stores boxes and packages of donated foods from local and regional sources. Volunteers from the local resource center, the congregation, and a teen with her grandmother were busily shifting boxes when I visited. That room was going to be cleaned, then arranged so that foods are continually up-to-date.
A third downstairs room has become an inviting food pantry. Willow Mission, according to Pastor Cole, averages 15 individuals on days the mission is open, signing in for help for themselves and their families.
“Most individuals ... are looking for food and clothing help,” she said. “Some are also looking for household goods and furniture assistance. Others are looking for laundry/shower services, transportation help, cash assistance, or help in navigating the social service system.”
A fourth room stores toys, dishware, and other miscellaneous items. I observed a bilingual adult volunteer cheerfully pack a box of dishes for a first-time guest who expressed her need for them.
In the top floor of the church, donated clothing and shoes are organized into areas for women, men, and children to find clean, low-cost items. I observed an adult male and a teen looking for clothing in one room, while three teens and an adult woman shopped in an adjacent room. The clothing room is supervised by a volunteer from the resource center and his adult aide, as well as by volunteer church members.
In addition to changes in the use of the structure, lives are being transformed by this ministry.
“We were able to help the gentleman who was our recent overnight shelter caretaker get into permanent housing,” Pastor Cole said. “We also helped him get the appliances he needed to start out his new life. Additionally, we were able to promote one of our other guests into the night manager position.” At the time of my visit, another night manager was being sought as the former person had found employment and housing.
Willow Mission also helped a young, widowed mother of four get into housing and obtain the appliances needed to keep that housing. The mission continued to support her with food and clothing, and Christmas basket/gifts while she enrolled in school to study nursing. According to Pastor Cole, she is now on her feet and doing well.
Testimonies were offered by everyone I encountered. A teen from the resource center told me that she liked volunteering at Willow Mission because she learned skills for future employment and she liked being helpful. The church secretary, lay leader, and a finance committee member, as well as other lay members, were on hand and actively helping in all areas. Pastor Cole described a planned fundraiser that just came to fruition from yet another adult volunteer. Guests were finding what they needed for work, for school, for summer, for that day.
I walked through the open door of this church in Dunkirk on a Monday morning and found persons of all kinds offering hospitality, help, and God's love to neighbors. It is not only the neighbors who are being fed, sheltered, and assisted by active disciples of Christ. Those disciples are also being transformed: from the pew to the pulpit, from comfortable retirement to church maintenance and finances, from church secretary to guest director, from layperson to the hands and heart of Jesus.
This is clearly where a church building and its disciples are finding transformation. Support from our Upper New York Conference encourages such opportunities by connecting resources to programs. Ministry shares paid to the Conference are working in a local charge, making it possible for neighbors to hear about Jesus, to choose to attend worship, to shovel snow, mop floors, move boxes, in thanks for God's grace and mercy.
And for one woman, such connections moved her from pew to pulpit. Like the apostle Peter, Pastor Cole has stepped out of the comfort of the boat and into the challenging waters. She said, “Those calls at 3 a.m. are never easy, but how can we not answer them?”
Willow Mission is located in the Dunkirk First UMC, 601 Washington Ave., Dunkirk, NY 14048. Copies of the Breakfast at Sally's are available for purchase, and donations are always gratefully accepted.
All ministries affiliated with the Upper New York Conference that are doing ministry with the poor are invited to apply for program funding through the Reaching Our Neighbors Mission Oversight Team (RON MOT). The application form can be downloaded here; the deadline to submit is Aug. 15. For more information, click here.