By Heather Hahn (UMNS)
Ten years ago, the ministry of Oak Forest United Methodist Church appeared to be flatlining.
Its neighborhood was declining, and so was its membership. A core of mostly elderly worshippers was all that kept the lights on.
But now, by improving the physical and spiritual health of its struggling neighbors, the urban congregation is pulsing with new life.
Here is a short list of the outreach ministries Oak Forest United Methodist Church operates:
- The twice-weekly Shepherd’s Hope medical clinic
- A weekly dental clinic that does teeth extraction
- Multiple times monthly, Bart’s Place vision clinic (named in honor of the healed blind Bartimaeus)
- The weekly Matthew 25 Food Pantry
- Barnabas House, a counseling center that each week offers spiritual guidance and helps people navigate local social services
Linda J. Pringle, the volunteer coordinator of the food pantry, said that since adding these ministries, the congregation has transformed from “a pew-warmer church” to one where disciples try to live out Jesus’ words in Matthew 25.
“You are to help the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lame, and I feel that’s what we’re doing,” the 73-year-old said. “And I pray we can continue.”
As the church reaches outside its walls during the week, a new vitality is taking hold inside its sanctuary each Sunday. Where once mainly grandparents worshipped, young adults now also join in prayer and little ones giggle through children’s sermons.
A few visitors have dropped by on Sunday after being helped by one of the ministries, but the people who keep coming back tend to be those eager to volunteer to help others.
Church members are quick to point out that Oak Forest’s outreach ministries would not be possible without the generosity of parishioners, partnerships with other churches and businesses, and the support of the wider United Methodist connection. That support includes grants from the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
Still, the experience of Oak Forest United Methodist Church can be a model for other shrinking congregations in changing neighborhoods, said the Rev. Russ Breshears, the church’s pastor.
“What we’ve done is not miraculous,” he said. “God has helped us. But we’ve done some very specific things and made some very useful partnerships. And it’s worked for us. And we believe and have the faith that God can bless many other congregations that are in declining neighborhoods (and help them) transition to have a vibrant ministry.”
Small church, big impact
The Rev. Russ Breshears, pastor of Oak Forest United Methodist Church, says the urban congregation can be a model for United Methodist churches in struggling neighborhoods.
The church is small, with a regular worship attendance of about 70 — but attendance figures tell only part of the story.
In the past year, the Shepherd’s Hope medical clinic served 1,700 people. The vision clinic provided people with 400 new pairs of eyeglasses and arranged four cataract surgeries. The dental clinic removed painful teeth from about 500 people. The Shepherd’s Hope gynecology clinic detected cancer in its early stages and arranged free treatment for two women at local hospitals.
The clinics usually request patients pay $5 per visit, but no one is turned away because of inability to pay.
Physicians, dentists, eye doctors, nurses, pharmacists and technicians from a variety of religious backgrounds volunteer at the clinics. But they agree they would not be there without the support and, in many cases, the recruitment of Oak Forest members and the church’s energetic pastor.
The church’s food pantry, which feeds about 25 families each week, is entirely operated by church volunteers.
More than 90 percent of Oak Forest’s parishioners volunteer each week in some way to support the church’s ministries, and many of the church’s longtime older members are leading the charge.
They include Harry and Sue Dinsmore, both in their 80s, who volunteer every week at the church’s food pantry.
“I started out during the early Depression, and I know what it’s like not to have a lot of things that we take for granted today,” Harry Dinsmore said. “A little bit of help now and then makes a big difference.”
Breshears said he believes people never truly retire from serving God.