For the past 16 years, First Trinity Lutheran in Washington, D.C., a congregation of about 75 to 80 Sunday worshipers, has run a business next door to its building near Judiciary Square. Much more than a place to get an omelet, a sandwich or bowl of soup, New Course Restaurant and Catering is a free job-training ministry that prepares people for positions in the food industry.

“We train poor, low-income and homeless people to be chefs, kitchen helpers, and to do catering at weddings, bar mitzvahs and corporate events,” said Tom Knoll, who has been the pastor of First Trinity for 35 years.

He recalled how the ministry was humbly founded with grants and loans, growing to almost half-a-million dollars in sales per year by catering events and serving breakfast and lunch. Starting as a sandwich shop, the ministry has trained more than 400 people, Knoll said, and 85 percent of them have gotten jobs.

“We wanted to do something that wasn’t just charity, such as teaching people to fish rather than giving them something to eat,” he said.

Today, New Course is managed by an outside company and is self-sustaining, but the congregation is still involved, with Knoll helping with the book-keeping and serving on the ministry’s board.

“We wanted to do something that wasn’t just charity, such as teaching people to fish rather than giving them something to eat.” — Tom Knoll

First Trinity’s ministry is inspiring other congregations to think out of the box too. Its partner church, St. Matthew Lutheran near the D.C. waterfront, recently broke ground for a coffee shop. The Sacred Grounds Coffee Shop: Coffee with a Purpose will also be a job-training ministry, said Phil Huber, pastor of St. Matthew.

Stitching a future

Last fall, Unity Lutheran Church in Hickory, N.C., started a sewing ministry called Sew Much Good. With a small grant from the North Carolina Synod, crowdsourcing and support from the congregation, Unity is teaching women to sew well enough to get a job or start a small home business.

“We’re getting an incredible response,” said Kate Crecelius, pastor of Unity. “Both the congregation and the community are behind us.”

When Crecelius took the call at Unity last January, she found a struggling congregation with 35 people in church on Sunday who were seeking new ways to be the church.

She brought the idea of a sewing ministry, which she’d launched at another church, to Unity’s council. With the congregation on board, the synod grant of almost $2,000 was used to buy 12 sewing machines. Fabrics, notions and other supplies were donated by the congregation, Safe Harbor Rescue Mission and the Greater Hickory Cooperative Christian Ministry.

Taught by Dawn Price, a retired family and consumer science teacher, the eight-week sewing course last fall was attended by two young mothers and several retirees. With differing backgrounds, all the women were looking to learn a skill and for a way to connect with others, Crecelius said.

“If they can demonstrate a mastery of skills, they earn that sewing machine to take home and use for income, home decor, crafting or whatever,” she added. Mastery of skills includes attending classes, completing a project—making a backpack for people who are homeless—and writing a résumé. Job-search skill training and mock interviews are conducted by a church member with a human resources background.

Retiree Amelia Williamson took the course to brush up on her skills: “I hadn’t sewn in years and I’d like to sew again. I needed a refresher course because the machines have changed.”

Williamson also likes the camaraderie. “I really enjoy the women,” she added. “They’re all so nice and friendly. I’m making friends and learning to sew. It has been a wonderful thing.”

Rachael Ray, a mother of a 5- and 6-year-old, agreed: “I’m learning a new skill and can do something with it.”

Ray said it’s heartwarming to know that the church is providing this course solely to help people. “They’re out there to help people and not in it for money like most places are,” she said. “I’d recommend it to others because everyone deserves the right to enjoy something they want to do or learn something they want to learn.”

Ann Kanipe, a member of Unity for about 10 years, showed her support for the new ministry by donating fabric. “I had some fabric that I’d gotten when I was working in upholstery. It was just small pieces, but pieces that I thought could be used,” she said. “I hope the people who are taking the [classes] will get something out of it and it will mean something to them. I hope they can take it further and do something in life with it.”

Crecelius said Sew Much Good is helping the congregation see hope and new possibilities in a future.

“It’s helping them see that God is up to something,” she said. “God always shows up and is always present. God always provides. If the women [in the classes] feel confident and empowered and found something in themselves that they didn’t know was there, then we will have succeeded.”

Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Brewster, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

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