St. John converts theater into closet, pantry, clinic

 

 

When St. John United Methodist Church needed a name for its new ministry building, they chose The Stith Mead House. Not project, or building, but house.

In that house, the church and community ministries collaborated to relocate a health clinic serving the poor and uninsured, open a clothing closet, and provide free rent to a food bank.

The house was consecrated and its name unveiled in a service at the church Wednesday night.

In the two years since St. John bought the old Augusta Mini Theatre on Eighth Street, renovations have turned old office space and dance studios into a community center.

The building now houses the food pantry of the Downtown Cooperative Church Ministries, the St. Vincent DePaul Health Clinic, and a clothing closet, which will open Tuesday.

"The community can come for food, clothing, medical care in one stop." said Gloria Hamilton, the church's administrator.

The name was chosen to pay homage to the founder of St. John's church.

"He's steeped deep in our history and tradition," Hamilton said. "He birthed Methodism in Augusta."

A new sign with the Methodist logo -- a 10-foot backlit cross and flame -- will soon hang facing Telfair Street.

The building is large -- more like three buildings in one. The food pantry, health clinic and clothing closet all have separate storefront entrances.

The church paid $120,000 for the property in 2008. It took an additional $119,000 to replace the roof, renovate the electrical and plumbing systems and add new windows, heating and air and lighting.

The St. John's faithful dug deep into their pockets to cover the entire $240,000 check, Hamilton said.

"The church, we had just been feeling this slump, like a lot of downtown churches. Gary led us through it," Hamilton said. "We were a church that always talked about how we wanted to be a downtown church and really serve the people, but it was just lip service. Now, we're doing it."

The "Gary" she speaks of is the Rev. Gary DeMore, who came on as pastor of the 600-member church five years ago.

DeMore says he wishes he could explain it better how St. John ended up with the property and began the process of turning it into a community missions hub. It's clear, he said, that God orchestrated the time and place and people it took to bring the project together.

"I don't really know how to put it, other than to say Tyrone Butler over at the mini theatre got a bee in his bonnet to build a new place. He did and it's a beautiful place on Deans Bridge Road," DeMore said. "I went to the congregation and said, 'Really, we need to buy it,' and we did."

Except, Hamilton said, it wasn't exactly clear what DeMore hoped to do with the property once they acquired it.

"Gary said at one point, 'I don't know why we're doing this, but it's where the Lord has us,' " she said. "Once we purchased it, the food pantry, the clinic, everything came together."

Not one program or ministry was cut to make room for the new mission's building in the budget, Hamilton said. In one day, the church pledged a quarter-million dollars toward the project.

"We gave people a cause, a purpose, and everything else took off," Hamilton said. "People are excited. Pouring into this has helped all of our programs grow."

For the first time in years, new, younger families are joining the church.

"I believe the Lord prospers you when you're taking care of others," DeMore said. "If you're looking out for yourself, not so much. With this building, we're back on the map. Our church will not be a museum anymore."

He, and the church, have high hopes for the ministries based out of the Stith Mead House.

The building sits just off the bus line, across from the new Immaculate Conception School, near the corner at Telfair Street.

"This area is growing and clearing up," Hamilton said. "The new library, Immaculate Conception, and every storefront on this block is filled. It's looking up."

There is, however, still work to be done. There are still BB holes in the storefront's glass, and earlier this week, a brick was thrown through the window of the barbershop next door.

The church hopes to receive a grant to restore the original facade, which was hidden when the second-story windows were boarded up.

They'll add an elevator one day, too, and continue to renovate as needed.

They've recently finished work on the clothing closet upstairs. It has rooms for children, women's, men's and plus-sized clothing. The sale of the items, which are priced at about $3 or $4, will help pay the electric bill.

The health clinic downstairs pays utilities, but isn't charged rent. Neither is the food pantry. Both are open five days a week. In the evenings, St. Vincent's hosts special clinics for women, Latinos and the homeless.

Some of the clients at the food bank are homeless, but many are just struggling paycheck-to-paycheck.

Each week, the food is bought from Golden Harvest Food Bank and supplemented with donations for local churches.

The pantry is staffed by volunteers from the 15 churches of the Downtown Cooperative Church Ministries, a nonprofit supported from local churches.

The food pantry, now in its 35th year, used to be located on Hale Street. Since moving to the Eighth Street location last July, the pantry has more than doubled its volume. It now serves 300 to 400 a week.

In the months leading up to Wednesday's consecration service, the walls were painted, art was hung and signs were made.

The church chose a soft, sunny yellow.

"We're trying real hard to do this with dignity for the people we serve," DeMore said. "We chose the colors, the art, with that purpose in mind. We're all God's people and deserve to be treated as such."

Gary Dean, the superintendent of the Augusta District of the United Methodist Church, walked the sunlit yellow halls on a tour of the property before Wednesday's consecration service. Dozens of church members and volunteers attended.

"I'm so happy to see the church focusing on its own neighborhood. The church is realizing its mission. They're seeking to connect with the community around them," he said. "It's encouraging. You can see it already. This place is going to be a major hub of outreach and mission in the community."

Who was Stith Mead?

Stith Mead established St. John United Methodist Church in Augusta in 1798.

According to a history of the church, he was a young circuit rider who found faith at a camp meeting in Virginia. His family worshipped at St. Paul's Church. He was allowed to preach there just once after his sermon condemned Augustans for not knowing "their right hand from their left" in religious matters.

Mead went on to found Augusta's Methodist Society. In 1800, he paid $500 for the Greene Street lot, where the church currently stands.

LEND A HAND

Donations to the clothing closet, which opens Tuesday, can be dropped off Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call the church at (706) 724-9641 or see stjohnaugusta.org.

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