In Worcester, Mass., the secondhand goods sold at Emanuel’s Closet represent the first step of a reinvigorated congregation looking for new ways to serve.

“Jesus told us we have a responsibility to our neighbors—feed the hungry, clothe the naked and be a place of shelter,” said Tom Houston, the licensed lay minister of Emanuel Lutheran Church, which houses the thrift store. “We want to be more of a factor in our community, and Emanuel’s Closet is a starting point.”

Emanuel’s current building is located in an older neighborhood at the edge of downtown Worcester, population 185,000. Organized 125 years ago by Swedish immigrants, the church has a membership of about 120, roughly one-tenth of what it was in its heyday.

“Our church, like so many, had been really struggling last year, and for a few years leading up to that,” said Sarahbeth Persiani, a member of Emanuel who volunteers at Emanuel’s Closet. “We’d been losing members, losing interest, and we were in conversations about selling our building and maybe joining up with another congregation.”

The thrift store idea, she said, came during a ministry meeting “where we asked ourselves, what can we creatively do to serve the community and get people in the doors?”

The church converted some unused adjoining Sunday school classrooms into a place where neighbors—some experiencing hard times because of the COVID-19 pandemic, others transitioning from homelessness—could shop for high-quality yet inexpensive housewares and clothing. Jackets, for example, cost $6 each—even if they’re like new and bear a Columbia Sportswear label.

As Persiani explains, the store “hasn’t solved all of our financial problems but has helped significantly to bring the congregation closer together to work on a tangible and common goal.”

Donations of merchandise poured in from the congregation, racks and fixtures arrived courtesy of a recently closed local boutique, and Emanuel’s Closet opened for business in September 2020. Sorting and pricing take place on weekdays, and store hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

“We want to be more of a factor in our community, and Emanuel’s Closet is a starting point.”

“Why not try it?”

A half-mile away from Emanuel, the congregation’s 122-year-old former building now houses the Quinsigamond Village Community Center (QVCC), which offers a range of free programs to neighbors, with an emphasis on lower-income individuals and families. QVCC has already forged a partnership with Emanuel’s Closet. If the center’s clients need clothing, cookware or other items, QVCC directs them to the thrift store. When Emanuel’s Closet had a surplus of blankets and comforters, it donated them to the center to be given to a QVCC-supported shelter.

“Emanuel’s Closet has helped bring our congregation together to focus on Christ’s commandment to reach out to our neighbors and be of assistance,” said Houston, who has served at Emanuel for just over two years following a 40-year career in food sales. “We have a lot of return customers from the neighborhood who wait to see the helium balloons we put out each time we open, and we have folks come down on buses from the inner parts of the city. Customers and others have told us we’re filling a need.”

The congregation, Persiani said, has struggled at times to evolve and embrace fresh ideas. Houston arrived in an interim capacity after Emanuel’s pastor retired, and the congregation asked him stay on permanently.

“One thing he brought in was 100% encouragement,” she said. “We had, over time, fallen into a lot of ‘We don’t do that [here].’ We’d gotten stuck in old habits, and when Minister Tom came in, everything was possible and encouraged. He brought in an attitude of ‘Why not try it?’”

For his part, Houston saw congregants who wanted to give their time and energy and just needed a new, positive direction. Recently members filled 55 shopping carts with donated groceries for those facing food insecurity and distributed 38 backpacks full of school supplies to local children.

“The whole aspect of participation and engagement has fired up the church, and we hope to expand to other initiatives,” Houston said. “For example, we want to reconstitute our youth group and get teens more involved and open up the church once or twice a month to our teens and neighborhood teens.

“We’ve been here 125 years, and if we want to be here another 125, we need to find new ways to do what we’ve been called to do: Christ’s work. Now, for the long term, [we] hope and pray, our outlook is substantially better. … I’m in for the long haul if they’ll have me.”

Steve Lundeberg
Lundeberg is a writer for Oregon State University News and Research Communications in Corvallis.

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