Space-sharing collaboration helps dwindling church, local agency

By Jessica Brodie

NORTH CHARLESTON—In its prime, Cherokee Place United Methodist Church was one of the largest in the South Carolina Conference.

“It used to be the 12th-largest in the conference with more than 2,000 members in the 1950s, when people often walked to church,” said Cherokee Place’s pastor, the Rev. Ellen Younker, citing the church’s long history of United Methodist Women and other ministries, including sending mission teams to the Philippines.

But that was a different era. Today, many of Cherokee Place’s members have moved to the suburbs. The neighborhood surrounding the church has changed over the years. On Sundays, the church draws about 45 people to worship.

With 22,000 square feet, the church was being sorely underutilized, Younker said.

But thanks to a new space-sharing collaboration with Tricounty Family Ministries, Cherokee Place is reimagining itself in a nontraditional way—and returning to the missional spirit of its heyday in the process.

As of January, Tricounty Family Ministries is sharing a portion of the ground floor with the church to house its full-scale operation, which involves taking clients from crisis to stability to self-sustainability through counseling, food, clothing, shelter, job training, education and health advocacy.

Younker said the collaboration allows the church to be more than just a Sunday worship space.

“The Charleston District Congregational Development Committee continues to be supportive of and celebrate with both Cherokee Place UMC and Tricounty Family Ministries regarding this important step forward for both groups and the community,” said David Braddon, Charleston District lay leader. “This partnership should facilitate meeting both the physical and spiritual needs of the community surrounding the church.”

Inspired by a dream

Younker came to Cherokee Place seven years ago, and about five or six years ago, they began to take a hard look at the daily usage of their building.

“We realized the church really uses only about a third of its space,” Younker said.

Then, in November 2014, Younker had a dream that changed the future of the church. In the dream, Cherokee Place was slated to host an orchestra and 100-member choir, and a church member asked about the other buildings as they walked from room to room, looking at the space. She awoke feeling unsettled—and inspired.

“I felt it was a dream of not using what we had, and we had bounty,” Younker said.

She established a church vision team of eight people who began to research what other groups were doing in the inner city area around their building. They had partnered with Tricounty for many years, hosting their annual Christmas brunch, but after the dream, Cherokee Place began dialoguing with the agency.

It turned out that Tricounty was facing challenges of their own—most especially lack of space for their growing list of clients in need.

Previously, because of space constraints, many of the services were outside year-round. But with the move, Tricounty Chief Operating Officer Mary Howell, noted Tricounty will now feed hundreds of people five days a week instead of three days a week. Now they will be able to eat indoors, plus take advantage of other Tricounty services there under one roof.

Sue Hanshaw, Tricounty board chair, called the space-sharing “a dream come true.”

“It’s a beacon of hope for the community,” Hanshaw said. “People are inspired. We’re not just talking the talk; we’re doing it. This is happening!”

Part of the agreement includes remodeling and refurbishing portions of the building, including an expanded kitchen and the addition of cold and dry storage for food. Tricounty’s Healing Hands clinic will be housed there four days a week, as well.

“It’s wonderful,” said nurse Maryanne Jones. “Everyone’s really excited about this move. You can tell they really want us here.”

‘More than we’ve ever done’

And Younker said the congregation does indeed want Tricounty there. At first, she said, there was a learning curve, plus a lot of close examination of what church members really wanted from their church, which in their case turned out to be Sunday school, choir, worship on Sunday mornings and adequate places for various church groups to meet.

“It really was a change, and we had to do lots of reassurance that the church was not being replaced or would be damaged, but most of the changes will be Monday through Friday only,” Younker said. “Things will continue and go on as they were—plus. With this collaboration, we can all do more than we’ve ever done.”

She said many members are now beginning to take ownership of the collaboration, even referring to Tricounty’s operation as “our program,” which for her is heartening. The day the Advocate visited, Dec. 19, Cherokee Place was hosting Tricounty’s annual Christmas brunch, featuring a toy and food giveaway plus donations of scarves, socks, mittens, coats and hats. Many church members volunteered to help at the event, which drew roughly 2,000 people from the surrounding community.

“It’s a good partnership,” Younker said.

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