College Place UMC finds renewed strength in diversity and outreach

By Porsche Barton

COLUMBIA—Once a predominantly white church with an aging congregation, today College Place United Methodist Church is giving new meaning to the words “come as you are.” The congregation is opening its doors and hearts to every one of God’s children in need of a church family built on love and acceptance.

With roughly 100 members—including families from Africa, recovering addicts, senior citizens and transgendered parishioners—College Place has transformed within the last few years, and is now significantly diverse. As the church proudly boasts on one of its flyers inviting new members from all walks of life to come to the church to worship: “College Place is where all people—African, African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic, male, female, old, young, gay, straight, rich, poor, in recovery, blue collar, white collar, opera singers, Gospel singers, saints and sinners—are welcome.”

“We’re not a black church; we’re not a white church. We’re a church that happens to be in Eau Claire,” said the Rev. Tiffany Knowlin, former pastor for the past six years who was appointed elsewhere in July. “It is our goal that the congregation is reflective of the people who are around us and who are centered here.”

College Place’s new pastor, the Rev. Mary Johnson, said even after just one month on the job, she feels excited to come to the church at this particular time in its history.

“Through (Knowlin’s) tenure, they have re-envisioned who they are as a church and where they want to go,” Johnson said. “As a new pastor, this is a great place to come in.”

Modeling diversity

College Place is not only diverse in its people. The church has also grown and flourished through its various ministries and partnerships with nonprofit groups, which have helped them better serve the diversity in the surrounding Eau Claire community that also includes a United Methodist liberal arts women’s college, Columbia College.

The church wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a church that happened to exist. They wanted to make sure the church existed with a purpose. Knowlin described the church as one big tent, and Johnson agreed.

“It’s a big tent that shares its space and resources with a lot of different folks and groups,” Knowlin said.

The church has taken on several missions to ensure the surrounding community receives help, love and support. Many of their missions are housed in the church, such as Children’s Garden, a childcare service where about a third of the children are homeless. There’s also an Alcoholics Anonymous hut for recovering addicts, located next door to the church, as well as a mediation center upstairs, where people come for legal counseling.

College Place also opens its doors to a weekly domestic violence group, a neighborhood association and students from Columbia College, who take religion classes and often teach at the church.

“Diversity is shown in the way we assist each other with day-to-day issues, shown in programs that are a part of church,” said Michele Blanch-Barr, a member since 1988. “It’s shown in the social as well as spiritual activities. There’s things going on that reflect diversity throughout the week, not just Sunday mornings.”

As Knowlin said, “There’s a lot of people meeting and coming and doing.”

Changed hearts

And many of those who have connected with the church have gone on to become members of the congregation, such as Beth Padgett, a six-year member of the church.

“I sing in the choir, I sit and look out at the congregation and pay attention to who’s there,” Padgett said. “Over time, we’ve had more African-Americans join the church, families, singles and people of a diverse age. I sometimes want to take a picture; it is inspiring to me. I just want everyone to know that it is happening there—it is important to me personally. And I believe that there’s other people like me, seeking a church and would like to be apart of a church with a diverse membership. Within a Methodist church, I haven’t really seen it. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for that in South Carolina.”

Padgett spoke proudly about being a member of a church that models diversity. She believes a great benefit in becoming a multicultural church is having the capacity to help other people do the same thing in their congregations—to model, speak out about and encourage diversity.

“This is what I’ve been looking for, for decades,” Padgett said. “It’s what I think the church should look like.”

Blanch-Barr said the diversity gives them all an opportunity to get to know and be involved with different people, which in turn involves introspection of preconceived ideas and even stereotype.

“It is important because that is who we are as United Methodists, as a state of South Carolina and a nation,” Blanch-Barr said. “Diversity isn’t going away. There needs to be walls and barriers broken down to be able to appreciate differences. It is who we are.”

Embracing change

Johnson said diversity amplifies so much about the church.

“The importance of diversity here and any place is you’ve got an opportunity for a broader perspective: a broader perspective on leadership styles, a broader perspective from the different cultures, getting the opportunity to broaden your individual aspect of life, your world view, so-to-speak,” Johnson said.

It’s also a message rooted in Scripture, they say.

“I think it’s important because it’s what Christ modeled for us,” Padgett said. “Nobody was turned down, refused, considered unlovable. When we open our arms to one another I feel we’re being Christ-like, and when we don't, I feel like we’re not.”

Knowlin herself was a model of change and diversity within the church; she was the first female, first African American and first pastor younger than 30 years old. She has passed on that torch to Johnson, who is now the church’s second female, African-American pastor.

“College Place feels like it can be a place that can be a home,” Knowlin said. “We have some of everybody in this church and our folks here are embracing that.”

Johnson said the congregation doesn’t seem to be afraid of change.

“Change can be good, but it also can be very intimidating because it’s not intuitive for us to change,” Johnson said. “We like to be in what we would consider a ‘safe place.’ But this congregation has moved beyond being afraid of change, and they’ve implemented lots of changes.”

With change comes challenge

But College Place did not evolve overnight. It has taken the 101-year-old church some time to get to the place it is today, and they are still growing within themselves and God.

“In the beginning, when I first got here, some people may have seen the diversity almost as a liability, whereas now I really believe that people embrace the diversity and see it as an asset,” Knowlin said. “For a while, I think, people just wanted it to be the way it always had been. We will never be that again.”

But like all things, with change comes challenge. Many College Place members said the transition was not always easy. Although they’ve gained new members, they’ve lost some, as well.

Blanch-Barr said for many in the congregation, having Knowlin at the helm was their first time having an African-American pastor, let alone a female African-American pastor.

“She really grew on us and we grew on her,” Blanch-Barr said.

Johnson said that laid a strong foundation for the church and its new vision.

“It’s a good place to be,” Johnson said.

‘This is the kingdom’

Knowlin and Johnson said they both look forward to a bright, God-sized future for the church. Knowlin said she hopes to see the church become even more diverse, just like the Kingdom will be.

Johnson agreed. “We’re in a place now where we can’t wait for people to come in to see who we are.” Now, she said, “We’re going to have to go out for them to see who we are—we have to show them!”

Members said they feel much the same, and they said they like what the church’s new diversity has done for them both personally and spiritually.

“It helps me be a better person. If you are in that setting, if you’re there with us and you don't find you’re being challenged and invited into a different world view, then I think you’re missing a lot of the opportunity,” Padgett said. “We don't want to lose this diversity. We really treasure it. You become so aware, like ‘Wow this is the kingdom. This is God’s creation. This is the picture,’ because everybody’s so different.”

Blanch-Barr said the church is also receptive to differences both in decisions and choices; they can clearly acknowledge and dialogue in a healthy way.

“We’re not afraid to talk about race and differences,” she said.

Though College Place is not a very large church, with a large amount of effort and love in their hearts, they’ve managed to reach out to those in need. At their core, they strive to love and provide support for people in the community as they are, no matter the circumstances.

“People are who they are,” Knowlin said. “Everybody has a story. Honor their story. Honor who they are. You don’t have to make anybody something that you want them to be.”

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