When First Congregational Church of Bellingham built a new sanctuary in the mid-2000s, it wanted to be sure the facility would be used all week long and not just on Sunday.
So along with worship space, the Washington state congregation’s plans included a ground-level space with a separate entrance that could be used by an outside ministry or nonprofit.
Finding the right partner took some time. The building was finished in 2004, and, for more than a decade, the extra space was used as storage.
Then last month, the church dedicated The Ground Floor, a custom-built drop-in center for homeless youth, run in partnership with Northwest Youth Services, a local nonprofit.
“It felt like a hand-in-glove fit, that this was an organization we could work with,” said Sharon A. Benton, pastor of First Congregational.
While many churches engage in mission activities “beyond the walls” of their buildings, others are finding innovative ways to use their facilities to serve others and extend their mission in existing properties.
Some congregations see rental agreements as a way to make use of underutilized spaces or to augment declining church budgets, allowing the worshiping community to stay in a facility it could not otherwise afford. Others have long-standing arrangements to incorporate profit-making and not-for-profit businesses, such as child care centers, into their physical plant.
Other faith communities want to support organizations that fulfill or extend the mission of the church.
First Congregational needed more space for church programs and worship attendance when it built its current sanctuary. It was also concerned about its mission, said Benton.
“The congregation knew it wouldn’t be able to do anything with the basement at that time,” she said. “But it was already having conversations about what it would do for mission in the community.”
At first, the ground floor space was used to store furniture and home goods for a local agency providing assistance to low-income people moving into their first home or apartment. It was an important ministry but wasn’t fulfilling the church’s intent for the building.
In 2015 the church called Benton as its lead pastor. One of her first jobs was finding a partner for the ground-level space.
“The congregation knew it wanted to do something around homelessness because that’s a long-time passion,” said Benton. “But in getting to know the congregation, I realized that it is predominantly made up of educators who have a passion for young people. We are also very passionate about being open and affirming to GLBTQ folk because there are fewer congregations that are open (in our area).”
The congregation sent members to interview homeless youth and volunteer with existing agencies and eventually decided to partner with Northwest Youth Services.
Members of the church worked with Northwest Youth Services and an architect to design the space, and First Congregational raised the funds to complete the construction.
“To see the thought that has gone into this space, in just the smallest of details, it’s well laid out,” said Emerson McCuin, Ground Floor coordinator. “I can tell that our agency had a lot of input as to what our youth are needing, and the church was open to that.”
Northwest Youth Services supports the programming of The Ground Floor — including a director, social workers, counselors, housing managers, support staff and utilities — while the church provides and maintains the facility at no cost to the agency.
The Ground Floor celebrated its grand opening Feb. 10, attended by church members, community supporters, neighbors and the city’s mayor. The center has hosted more than 20 unique youth each week since it opened, with a use permit and staff capacity to accommodate 30 young people at a time. From 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. weekdays, youth have access to counseling, job and housing services, computers, wi-fi, a kitchen, a clothing pantry, laundry machines, showers and nap rooms in addition to communal gathering space.
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Source: Religion News Service