'Looking outward' – South Portland church launches community programs

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SOUTH PORTLAND – A small, historic South Portland church has launched a big effort to serve the community.

Volunteers at the Elm Street United Methodist Church, which began in 1891, see their building as more than a place to come for religious service every Sunday. Through three new programs, the church’s doors are being opened up to everyone in the community, regardless of religious beliefs.

“What we are trying to do is get away from just focusing on the church and get back to the mission of the United Methodist Church, which is to serve and help the community. We are working on looking outward instead of focusing inward,” said the Rev. Andrea Harvey, who, in July, was appointed pastor of the 26-member congregation.

One new effort, a clothing swap shop, will open Saturday in the basement in a space that used to be a nursery, but in recent years had sat vacant.

“Rather than see the room sit there unused, we thought we would put it to good use,” Harvey said.

Harvey, who as well as being an ordained reverend is a science teacher at Gray-New Gloucester High School, said she got the idea for a clothing swap from her previous congregation, the Good Shepard United Methodist Church in Gray.

“I came from a place with a clothing swap shop that really served a real need in the community,” Harvey said.

She said on the first Saturday of the month, from 9 a.m.-3 p.m., people can come in to swap clothing or take clothing. The swap shop provides clothing of all sizes for men, women and children, as well as blankets and other bedding, and shoes and accessories.

Swap shop volunteers, who include Susan Joyal, Jessica Salway and Donna Van Horn, have been collecting items since October.

Joyal said the swap shop is open to anyone who needs help, not just those who live in the neighborhood, or even South Portland.

“I think this is a great cause,” she said. “People need help. We are hoping that anyone who has a need will come down here and find something that will help them out.”

“The bottom line is this is a small congregation doing wonderful things in their community,” said Van Horn. “It is a wonderful thing. It makes you feel good you are helping others out.”

Another initiative launched by the church is an after-school program for students at Kaler Elementary School every Thursday from 3:15 to 5:30 p.m. The program, Harvey said, provides students an opportunity to get help with their homework and a place to play games or make arts and crafts projects.

Harvey said the concern regarding where children went after school was one of the issues that was brought up by Kaler principal Diane Lang when the two met earlier this school year.

“This is a safe, healthy environmental for kids to be,” Harvey said of the program.

Members of the congregation have also been providing healthy snacks to students at the school and mittens and hats to students in need.

Later this month, the church is scheduled to launch the first of its monthly community dinners. On Saturday, Feb. 19, the church will hold a spaghetti dinner from 4:30 to 7 p.m. in the church’s dining room. The menu will change every month. The series will continue on the fourth Saturday of the month thereafter. Harvey said the dinners, which will come with a per-person, or per-family fee, are not being held as a fundraiser for the church, but rather, like the swap shop and after-school program, as a way to give back to the community.

“We want to do what we can to give back to the community,” she said. “As a church we are called to do so and these are the ways we are being lead to do so. We don’t want church to be an hour on Sundays, but a place that is alive and doing things to help people.”

Because of the economy, Salway said, need is ever increasing.

“I think nowadays people need more help than they did before,” she said. “If we can provide them with some clothing, or a good meal, we have done our job.”

City Councilor Tom Blake, who grew up in the neighborhood, agrees that need is greater now than it was before. Churches, he said, must rise up to meet that need.

“With our changing social structure, I think churches need to diversify the services they provide,” said Blake, who grew up on Chestnut Street and attended the church. “This is the exact type of thing they need to be doing to reach out to the community and broaden the scope of services to meet the community needs.”

Blake said Pleasantdale, the neighborhood around the church, is one of the areas of town where he sees the greatest need. The church’s efforts, he said, can help meet that need, as well as the need in other parts of South Portland.

Although he is not a member of the church now, Blake said, he will donate to the swap shop and encourage his friends and colleagues to do the same.

“I commend them for what they are doing,” he said of the church’s volunteers. “It is just what they need to do to survive. I encourage the community to support them and donate.”

Susan Joyal hangs clothing as she and other members of the congregation at South Portland’s Elm Street United Methodist Church prepare to open a community swap shop in the church basement. The swap shop is just one of the new programs being added at the church, where parishioners are looking to increase their service to the community. (Photo by Rich Obrey)