Messiah Community Center: A Ministry of Presence

December 22, 2017 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

Editor’s Note:

To celebrate the announcement of the 2017 Kaleidoscope Fund grant recipients, we are sharing the 2016 recipient’s stories over the next two months. See all 2016 stories here as they are published.

-LCEF Editorial Team

According to Rev. Michael Okine, senior pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church, St. Louis, Mo., it’s hard to ignore, neglect or insult someone you’ve gotten to know.

“Around here we like to say ‘get to know people, get to like people,'” Okine said, “because we tend to care about those people whom we build a connection with.”  This is the driving belief that runs like a thread through all actions of Messiah and its members.

“Different groups of people live here,” he said. “The [East Fox Homes] project was started because we learned about the poor living conditions of our Nepalese and Bhutanese church members.” The East Fox Homes project transformed eight dilapidated buildings into 47 affordable and clean apartments, turning neighborhood liabilities into assets.

A retired school teacher from Los Angeles, who moved to the area two years ago to be close to her daughter, has been watching the development closely. “I fell in love with this neighborhood… I want to preserve its historic integrity and nature.” She lives on Magnolia Avenue and sits on the neighborhood association board. “What is being done here is good,” she said.

Okine, however, wanted more than just to preserve a historic neighborhood. He wanted a deeper connection with his neighbors.

“People know about our church. They know there is a building up there on Grand, but they don’t know much about it,” he said. “We are always looking for ways to interact with the neighborhood.” The capstone of that motive lies in the Messiah Community Center (MCC), the recipient of a 2016 Kaleidoscope Fund grant.

The MCC sits ten blocks from Messiah at 2801 Magnolia Ave., about a 30-minute walk. While there are newly renovated apartments on the second and third floor, the main floor and its office space will be devoted to the community.

Connecting with neighbors

The MCC’s event calendar is brimming with activities. In October the church did a neighborhood clean up, something they intend to do on a regular basis come spring. The church also went caroling through the neighborhood on December 15. Both activities provided the church an opportunity to talk to people and inform them about the community center.

For Becky Gill, office manager at Messiah, the community center has personal appeal. “I live in the neighborhood and so I’m excited that there will be an opportunity for everyone to come together.” Among the activities that Messiah plans for the center include a program run by a local art cooperative.

On Saturday mornings, the cooperative will hold classes for elementary kids, taught by paid artists. “They also suggested we have an art show with refreshments at the end of the program so we can invite the parents in and [the kids] can show off their work,” she said. Okine and Gill agree this will be a fun partnership to develop with the cooperative. “As we get some volunteers from the neighborhood to help,” she said, “that will open doors and be another point of contact for the church.”

Filling big needs

Okine also wants people to feel Tower Grove East is a good and safe neighborhood. “In the past, lots of people have moved out of here. But people are moving back to the neighborhood, especially young adults, so for me, it’s a hopeful community. We want to encourage the people who live here that this is a good neighborhood. This is a friendly place you can feel safe.”

There’s at least one neighbor who approves. She lives a block down from the center on Nebraska Avenue. “I moved in here 15 years ago when there was hardly anybody living here. That’s starting to change.” To her, the MCC is a great idea. “There is now something for the kids to do and stay off the streets.”

To encourage people who may be afraid to come out at night, the center will offer a weekly senior exercise program, run by a Messiah member. They had their first class on December 18.

One big need people in the area have is help to apply for jobs. “Many people are looking for jobs and they don’t know how to apply online,” Okine said, “so we will have about 20 laptops at the community center with people available to walk them through the process.” Messiah currently has eight of the 20 laptops they hope to have available.

Inexpensive, sound financial advice is another big need. “We met with the nonprofit financial group, Prosperity Connection … they will come to the center to provide free financial personal planning, free credit scores, warn them to avoid payday loan places and offer help with getting out of debt.”

In addition, a social worker will operate out of the center for 25 hours a week, a resource seldom available to low-income families.

“There are needs in our community and we want to find out what those needs are,” said Okine. “We want people to come and we can share resources to help them or we can point them in the right direction.”

A ministry of presence

Okine says that Messiah wants nothing more than to have a presence in the community. “This is going to be a ministry of presence. That is necessary. It says you are not absent. People know you are there. People know you are a person who cares. And we care because Christ first loved us.”

For Okine and Messiah, the Kaleidoscope Fund grant came at the right time. “We had started working on the project, yes, then we were made aware of the grant. Everything just fell into place,” he said.

Connecting, helping and loving neighbors through a community center is exactly the kind of ministry the Kaleidoscope Fund was intended to support.

Keep up the good work Rev. Okine and Messiah!

Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.