What happens when a congregation no longer has the wherewithal to function as an organized church but its mission to the community is worth saving? After five years of soul searching and meetings, the Central States Synod directed redevelopment of Children’s Memorial Lutheran Church on the east side of Kansas City, Mo. The new entity, a Synod Authorized Worshiping Community named Gathering Table, has allowed the preservation and extension of services to the area’s homeless and needy residents.
Today, thanks to grants from the ELCA, the synod and other funders, the nonprofit Gathering Table opens its doors three days a week to provide meals, showers, clothing and worship opportunities.
The red brick building, previously home to a congregation founded in 1884, now also houses a nonprofit organization that teaches sewing skills and employability to refugees, a small tamale business operating out of the kitchen, and worship space for a Congolese congregation.
“This is a very important ministry of the church,” said Central States Bishop Susan Candea. “Jesus was very clear: Whatever you do for the least of these you do it for me. This transition lives out that reality.”
Gathering Table lives on a busy commercial thoroughfare in one of the most crime- and poverty-ridden neighborhoods of Kansas City. Homeless people often occupy nearby intersections, seeking handouts.
“It breaks my heart because I know a lot of these people sleep outside at night,” said Pastor Ann Rundquist, who leads Gathering Table on a part-time call. “This is a unique opportunity to help without a congregation that directly supports us.”
Once part of a thriving middle-class community located near an area of heavy industry and commerce, Children’s Memorial over the last half century suffered a gradual loss of membership, partly due to white flight from the neighborhood.
“In the late 1970s, the downsizing really began with problems in the Kansas City School system,” said lifelong member Deborah Taylor. “So many families moved out. We used to have hundreds of members, two services every Sunday and were very involved in the community and synod. Ultimately, it got to where we just had maybe 20 or 25 at services. By about 2011-2013, the handwriting was on the wall.”
Eventually, said Bishop Candea, “The congregation wasn’t even able to hold an annual meeting, elect council members, manage finances and do other structural, institutional things that are necessary to be a separate, incorporated entity. The synod called Ann (Rundquist) to be the pastor there in 2013, but there still wasn’t enough structure within the church to have a governing council.”
Closing Children’s Memorial “accepted the reality of what had been the case for several years,” according to the bishop. “It became the Synod’s responsibility, as the property owner, to manage the property and decide what to do going forward.”
The solution birthed Gathering Table, which occupies the church building rent-free (but is responsible for insurance costs). The new arrangement allows Gathering Table to apply for grants from outside organizations, something the former congregation couldn’t do. Currently, Gathering Table opens its doors on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Seventy-five percent of Gathering Table’s annual budget -- $82,000 last year -- is dedicated to program expenses. Pastor Rundquist, who basically serves as part-time janitor, musician, secretary, cook and fundraiser as well as worship leader at services, also serves part-time at Immanuel Lutheran Church on Kansas City’s west side.
A vibrant “people person,” Pastor Rundquist came to the ministry after a career in social services. Previously, she had been a director of the Kansas Governor’s Office for Children and Families, an ombudsman for the Central Kansas Social and Rehabilitation Services, and director of a public housing authority.
As the homeless and needy file into the back door of the church building for the regular Saturday noon meal, Rundquist is a whirlwind of hugs and conversations with many of the diners she has come to know.
In what some might consider a dangerous environment, Rundquist focuses on the positive. When one man, whom she knew, stole her cell phone and ran away with it, other men – even weeks later – continued to ask if her phone had been recovered and if there’d been an arrest. No to both questions, she told about 20 people at a recent worship service, but she wasn’t going to dwell on it. That spawned an impromptu discussion between a hymn sing and communion; two individuals told about bad things that had happened to them but how they chose good responses.
Bishop Candea and Pastor Rundquist agree that the biggest challenge is to increase awareness of Gathering Table. That’s the first step to improve needed fundraising and volunteer support, especially from more area churches. In recent months, most of the Saturday lunches, with average attendance of about 70, have been donated and served by volunteers. About half of the Saturdays are provided by volunteers from First Lutheran Church, with other Saturdays covered by Gloria Dei and Salem, other congregations in the Kansas City area.
But “out of the 8,200 meals we served last year on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, I’d estimate that 75 percent were cooked by me,” Pastor Rundquist said.
Fundraising is a challenge because there are so many competing and worthy recipients in the field of poverty and homeless services, Bishop Candea said, adding, “I’d love to find enough money to completely renovate the building and have a full-time pastor, but we have limited money as a synod and some of our congregations struggle financially.”
The bishop also noted that grantmakers look at sustainability when they allocate funds.
“We have to fight years of organizational decline in (the former congregation) to show that Gathering Table is sustainable,” Bishop Candea said. “I think it will take a while to turn the message around. Some former donors shifted their giving elsewhere when the congregation languished, but I think things are looking different, sounding different now. We have a good team in place.”
For Dan Glamann, whose family joined Children’s Memorial in 1957, seeing the resurrection of the building is a long-hoped-for success.
“Over the years, I’ve seen overwhelming change in the Northeast area and the church,” said Glamann, who now serves on Gathering Table’s leadership team. “But a constant has been the mission to the neighborhood. I continue to see the corner of Independence Avenue and Brighton as a beacon of hope.”
Gathering Table’s newest tenant, occupying two large rooms in what once was the Children’s Memorial education building, is a nonprofit named Once We Were Refugees.
The organization, founded by Rev. William B. Say and his wife, Ann L. Say, teaches sewing classes to immigrants, many of whom aren’t fluent in English and have few employable skills. Some of the students are women who never even used a pair of scissors, much less a sewing machine.
A growing group of volunteers helps Ann Say teach the classes, which require students to master basic sewing techniques. Graduates leave the program with a donated electric sewing machine, a pair of scissors, an iron, ironing board, thread, needles, and ten yards of fabric to begin sewing for their families or perhaps start a small seamstress business or make items to sell at crafts fairs or cultural events.
Classes at the Gathering Table facility may include training on an industrial stitch machine, a machine serger and a long-arm quilting machine, the kinds of equipment used in professional sewing settings.
Once We Were Refugees training, thanks to volunteers, includes basic computer training, job search techniques, and business start-up advice. The Says hope to expand classes to include minor home repairs, giving graduates skills and tools to care for their own homes or potentially take on minor repair jobs.