By Holly McCray
The faithful remnant celebrated in the worship service that closed Christ United Methodist Church in McAlester. The people had chosen to discontinue so that their building could take on new life as a mission outreach of McAlester-First.
For Charles Neff, that property transfer is another in a recent series of inspiring moments, affirmations of God’s presence. Rev. Dr. Neff is senior pastor at First UMC.
"We received this gift. We asked, ‘God, what do you want us to do with this gift?’ We immediately identified the need to feed the hungry and let that be our first outreach in Northtown, (the informal name for north McAlester)," he said, "to show that it’s a safe place, a welcoming place, and that people care."
The Christ Church congregation had dwindled to two families, according to District Superintendent Darrell Cates. Attendance averaged 7, according to the 2013 Oklahoma Conference Journal.
The 1970s metal building was shuttered in June, and First Church received the keys. In July, renovations took place with the help of a youth mission team from the Central Texas Conference. In August, the space reopened as Community Outreach Center.
By October, more than 50 people were eating supper there each Monday, as the free First Fruits Community Meal was served by First Church’s mission committee.
Bonnie Cates said, "It’s neat how members at First Methodist embraced this." She described Be the Church Sundays, when members engage in service projects throughout the city. "This is a natural outgrowth."
Youth director Tonya Martin blinked back tears when sharing one volunteer’s comment: "You get so much more out of it than you put into it." The youth group presented a Halloween festival during the Oct. 28 dinner.
Diners are all ages and growing in number, Martin said. "A lot of people request prayer, and we pray with them while they’re there."
"I know the quality of people at First Methodist. I know Charles’ spirit," said Rev. Darrell Cates. "It seemed those are the kind of folks that would come into this place and do something important for God. First Methodist is doing it right; they’re coming in and sitting down with folks. They’re at the table, too."
On Wednesdays, the Choctaw Nation rents the center for a counseling program. The space serves as a precinct voting site on election Tuesdays.
The roots of Christ Church extend back to 1874; it was McAlester’s first Methodist congregation.
Its remaining members made the June service of discontinuance a homecoming, said Cates, and that was well attended. Also, part-time pastor Lisa Anderson, a new seminary graduate, was moving to a full-time church. The members "saw that as a natural time to discontinue," Cates said.
"They were celebrating a lot of new possibilities, not a funeral. Rather than strip the sanctuary and carry out all the elements of worship, we celebrated the birth of the mission center."
Neff said the Community Outreach Center "not only means new life for what had formerly been Christ UMC, but for McAlester-First, too. Our members have another avenue to be the hands and feet of Christ. It’s outward-focused as well as inward, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and through our connections."
For First Church to thrive in discipleship, its ministry must extend "five-six-seven days a week," Neff said. The congregation’s strategic plan has four components: "Pray for growth. Staff for growth. Program for growth. Build for growth."
Neff arrived in McAlester in 2007, to pastor Grand Avenue UMC downtown. On New Year’s Day 2009, Grand Avenue and Wesley UMC, in southern McAlester, merged as First Church. Late in 2012, this newly named group occupied a newly constructed building, 20,000 square feet, on the expanded property of the former Wesley Church.
And now First Church is the one United Methodist entity in McAlester.
Throughout, Neff has seen the leading of the Holy Spirit. By a resounding vote of 96 percent, Grand Avenue’s people agreed to merge with Wesley, to sell the aging edifice and relocate. Existing endowments provided $4 million for new construction. An unexpected royalty check, for mineral rights held by the church, "showed up out of the blue." A landowner willingly sold 5 undeveloped acres beside Wesley Church’s 5 acres. The addition of an associate pastor post has brought Chris Symes’ gifts to McAlester.
"We’re attracting younger families," Neff said. "The average age of our members definitely has decreased."
He described the attitude of the multi-generation congregation as "mindful of our heritage, while excited about our future."
Cates said many churches resist merging; "they would almost rather die." Mergers succeed "when churches give themselves away and become a completely new entity," he summed up.