By Melissa Lauber
On Sunday mornings, the sanctuary at Oak Chapel UMC welcomes 25 families to worship. During the week, that exact same space is used for a different kind of holy work as people from the community and the church offer food to their neighbors in need, many of whom are immigrants from El Salvador.
God is in the midst of both activities, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Sherri Wood-Powe, believes. “It’s two kinds of faith communities. We both embody similar things,” she said. “Changing lives is what we’re supposed to be about.”
However, their outreach is now threatened.
The hub at Oak Chapel began during COVID, when churches were closed. Montgomery County began eight hubs in faith-based organizations to offer food and other supplies. The Board of Trustees of the Baltimore-Washington Conference gave a $150,000 loan to Oak Chapel so that they would have the cash flow to participate in the county’s reimbursable grant program.
Initially, the eight county hubs offered “grab and go” food. But almost immediately, Wood-Powe said, relationships began to form and the hubs were able to begin to tailor their offerings to people’s needs. Clients are now able to select items from the food pantry hubs as if they were grocery stores.
When the Oak Chapel Hub opened in October 2020, they were distributing food to 200 families a week. That number quickly grew to 500 families. In June of this year, they were providing food, diapers and health items to over 600 families a week and had two case managers on-site twice a week to provide counseling and referrals.
But in July, the Montgomery County Department of Human Services closed the Oak Chapel Hub and offered to provide only about a quart of the previous funding for the church to buy food during the current fiscal year.
Wood-Powe is hurt and mystified by the closure. The people they serve in the 20906 zip code, from the Aspen Hill and Layhill neighborhoods of Silver Spring, are among the most needy, she said. They also don’t have transportation to visit other county hubs, like the one at Hughes UMC in Silver Spring.
“We went from having a $1.2 million budget to $100,000,” Wood-Powe said.
But the church is committed to continuing and has become an independent hub. They receive food from nonprofits such as Nourish Now and receive free diapers from the Greater DC Diaper Bank. Other United Methodist churches, like St. Paul’s UMC in Kensington, also contribute funding. Wood-Powe estimates that it takes about $10,000 a month to keep the ministry alive. She hopes more churches will donate funding to this ministry
Volunteers are always welcome. The 35 current volunteers, many of whom do not attend church, have created a spirit of love and service that is inspiring, Wood-Powe said. “They have become a part of our family.”
And the family is making a difference.
“Even though the church has been here for 137 years, no one really knew about the church unless they came for the daycare. But during the pandemic, cars would line up down Layhill Road. People would ask, ‘What are you doing?’ We made an impact,” Wood-Powe said. “We’re going to continue to make an impact.”
During the midst of this work, a team from Oak Chapel participated in the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s Catalyst Initiative, a year-long pathway designed to help churches discover how to become more vital.
The Oak Chapel team chose to focus on a project aimed at assisting immigrants. In their Catalyst experience, they learned that “relationship is everything,” Wood-Powe said. For example, the church learned that printing information about resources in Spanish wasn’t enough. Many of their neighbors did not know how to read. “But we would never have learned that if we hadn’t taken the time for relationship. You can’t just walk up to someone and ask, ‘What do you need?’ You need to spend time together. You need to build trust. Otherwise, you’re just doing what you think people need or what is convenient for you.”
Partnership, with other community groups and churches is also essential, Wood-Powe said. “There are no boundaries. We are especially grateful for the volunteers from the Church of Later Day Saints of Jesus Christ. We are all God’s children. … We have become a new faith expression. We are the church without walls.”
Too often, “we can forget that changing lives is what we’re supposed to be about,” Wood-Powe continued. “We have lost the real definition of what it means to be the church. This work is hard, but it helps us to see again that being the church is about what we’re doing in the community. Please keep praying for us and PLEASE help if you can. This is what we want to embody. … It’s a huge faith journey.”