Community Center Answers Questions, Answers Needs
The plan for West Morris Church’s Westside New Day Center started with questions.
Some of the questions were what you might expect for a more-than-a-century-old church working to define its place in today’s world: What’s our mission? What’s our vision for the future? How can we best serve our community?
But some were a little more specific to the West Morris Church: How do we make the best use of our biggest tangible asset, our real estate? How do we build on our history and experience? How do we demonstrate the generosity we want to see in the world?
The Rev. Kristen Marble, who has led the West Morris Church congregation for seven years, said questions like these persisted for the small congregation located just southwest of downtown Indianapolis, especially in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Through a process supported in part by a Lilly Endowment grant, the church took a hard look at itself and worked to discern what the future would hold. At times, she said, the church’s very existence seemed to hang in the balance.
“I think it’s fair to say that if we hadn’t gone through this process, our church would be struggling to even find its identity,” she said. “We would not have stepped into greater ministry, to be sure.”
Now, she said, the congregation has a stronger focus, fueled in part by the ideas that became the Westside New Day Center, which received a 2023 Faith & Action Grant.
The $30,000 Faith & Action grant will help the day center support more than 30 neighbors experiencing homelessness and offer them a place of respite, resource, and rejuvenation where basic needs are met and hope can flourish. The Westside New Day Center will also provide case management and help with housing, employment-skills training, healthcare services, and other wrap-around services. The grant will be used to help with the cost of developing the space and installing needed plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems that will give neighbors access to showers, laundry facilities, Wi-Fi, computer access, and more. The center is expected to open late this year.
While the Faith & Action Grant will help to create the physical space for the day center, the space will be built on a foundation that was laid decades ago, Marble said. West Morris Church has a history of serving its neighborhood, and when the neighborhood changed over the years, the congregation made the decision to stay put and serve. The recent discernment process reminded members of this legacy and of the spirit that continues to drive it today.
“Love-driven justice is our core value,” Rev. Marble said.
It was shortly after the church engaged in the discernment process that a member came to Rev. Marble and said, “I think God might be calling us to do a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness.” That idea aligned with one that had been on Rev. Marble’s mind for a while, and it didn’t take much to get others onboard, she said.
The biggest question initially was where to put the center. Although the congregation had become increasingly comfortable with welcoming others into its building (the building had been grossly underutilized, she said, with at times only about 25% of its space being used) they worried that a church setting might create a barrier to some people seeking services.
Over time, however, Rev. Marble and her congregants felt that “the ideas just kept pointing back to the church.” So, they decided to renovate some of the space to allow for facilities and services that people experiencing homelessness would need. Because she had worked with a day shelter in Wichita before coming to Indianapolis, Rev. Marble had insight into what would be necessary. Plus, the church wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the area homeless community since it had served as a warming center last winter. It supplemented these experiences by talking with neighbors, doing research, and learning what was needed in the neighborhood.
In addition to providing basic services, the Westside New Day Center also will provide simple comforts to people who are unhoused, including a “living room” with comfortable chairs and places to relax, meeting rooms, and other spaces that will allow people to have private conversations and receive services.
Even though it’s still developing the day center, the church is already looking forward to a time when it will need to expand. “We will continue to listen to our community and receive community input from our advisory board members and neighbors who visit the center as an on-going way to adjust and respond to needs,” Rev. Marble said. “We’re hoping we will outgrow it and have to figure out something.”
10 Lessons Learned
- Recognize that small can be mighty. While its congregation numbers only about 50, West Morris Church is recognized in its neighborhood for making a difference for people in need.
- Ask questions. As described above, the process for creating the Westside New Day Center started with questions. These questions were not initially focused on what the neighborhood needed, but, rather, on what the church was being called to provide, and what resources it had to provide from. This process of discernment led to a vision of how the church could be an asset to its community.
- Say “yes.” Encourage ideas, passions, and the people who bring them forward. As Rev. Marble said, “I’ve often joked that any time somebody from the neighborhood comes with a question, I say ‘yes’ and then try to figure out what question I just said yes to.”
- Challenge yourself. West Morris Church has stepped out of its comfort zone and challenged itself to be open to whatever God might call it to do. Rev. Marble said that has not always been an easy process, and it occasionally ruffles feathers among congregants. But the congregation has learned that nothing important will be achieved by staying comfortable.
- Know your neighbors. Before making decisions about a course of action, West Morris Church talked with neighbors and neighborhood partners about assets and challenges.
- Assess your resources. A small church with limited financial resources, West Morris Church does have one resource in abundance: space. Once the church identified that as a resource to be shared, it looked for ways to leverage it. The result has been not only creating the Westside New Day Center, but also providing space for other churches, allowing community groups to use space and more.
- Lead by example. If West Morris Church wants its member to be generous, it needs to model generosity, Rev. Marble said, and that means giving from its abundance, even in the face of its own scarcities.
- Learn. Rev. Marble and congregation members read books about community services, used outside consultants to instruct them, and went through poverty alleviation training in order to move forward wisely.
- Step into gaps. Don’t create programs until you have identified gaps in the community and ways you can step in. Also recognize where you can’t step in; focus where you can have an impact.
- Partner. “We can’t do anything on our own,” Rev. Marble said. However, by partnering with area organizations such as the Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center and Ascent 121, West Morris found it could help to bring more resources to the community than it could possibly support alone.