Embracing a Changing Neighborhood
St. Paul’s UMC, Tyler is targeting dozens of community needs to provide ministry all over the map.
“I am determined to extinguish the rumor that St. Paul’s UMC is Tyler’s best kept secret,” says Pastor Todd Cooper. “I tell everyone we need to open our mouths and proclaim the good work God is doing here.” St. Paul’s noteworthy numbers tell a dramatic story of a small but very vital congregation at work.
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church was established as the East Tyler Methodist Episcopal Church in 1911 and later changed the name. Today, St. Paul’s is an energetic welcoming congregation set within the East Tyler Hispanic community. St. Paul's Church mission is to train and equip disciples to go out and be light of the world and they do this through a mission focus.
In the early 1990s the area around St. Paul’s began to change from what was a predominantly Anglo community to a Hispanic community. The church realized the task the Lord had put before them was to reach out to their neighbors. And so it began...the congregation reached out in love to embrace a changing neighborhood.
· The church began the Wonderful Wednesday after-school program, opening their hearts to neighborhood children, providing an opportunity to learn Bible stories, sing songs and fellowship. As other needs emerged, a food pantry and clothes closet were established and were quickly followed by St. Paul’s Pediatric Clinic, Andrew’s Park and St. Paul’s Dental Clinic. In 1996, St. Paul’s Children's Foundation was organized and incorporated to oversee all of the children's ministries and is funded by individual donors, local churches, and grants.
· So far this year, St. Paul’s Food pantry and clothes closet has served 8,516 families, which includes an average of 100 new families per month. Pastor Cooper is excited to report, “By serving these families, St. Paul’s has provided for over 12,000 children this year and spent $50,224 on food for the needy YTD.”
· Through September, St. Paul’s medical clinic has had 5,968 encounters with children, while the dental clinic has served 3,023. They average 60 new encounters per month in each clinic.
· The Backpack for Kids program increased from 450 students in 2011 to 600 students assisted in 2012.
· In July, St. Paul’s began a mid-week service at a local nursing home with six St. Paul’s members in attendance and 2 residents. After just four months, the service was averaging 36 people and marked life transformations. “I have recently had the opportunity to share the way of salvation to three of the residents who were uncertain of their eternal status,” he adds.
· This August, SPUMC hosted a first “Know Your Rights” seminar for the migrant community, featuring experts from the Human Rights department at SMU and an immigration attorney to answer questions. “This seminar not only helped families in attendance, it taught me a lesson as well,” adds Pastor Cooper. “Through conversations with these immigrants, we discovered that there is a lot of fear among the migrants in Tyler. Since ICE is very active here, the community is hesitant to engage the Anglo Church population. Also, years ago, gang activity was very heavy in the neighborhood around St. Paul’s and the church parking lot was a place the police would sit and watch for activity, creating a false association for the residents that the church and the police are connected.”
However, because of this seminar and the continued activity with the community-oriented medical, dental and food pantry, St. Paul’s is slowly changing perceptions. “The families attending the seminar assured me that they would spread the word that this church is truly a sanctuary and that I am their friend and will be an advocate for their rights,” he adds.
Pastor Todd’s vision is two-fold. “In a broad stroke we are about transforming lives, but secondly focused on the eradication of poverty, pain and division in our community.” One of St. Paul’s greatest concerns, he explains, “is how to turn the band-aid into the antiseptic by empowering our neighbors to get out of their circumstances.” To this end, St. Paul’s is starting (1) a ministry geared toward single moms, (2) establishing a computer lab to train single moms in basic computer skills and provide internet access for job searches and (3) offering weekly ESL classes, and 4) will build a greenhouse area to teach basic gardening skills and grow healthy fresh vegetables. “As we grow the gardening training,” says Pastor Todd, “we want to include a process called an Aquaponics system that will teach our neighbors how to grow fresh fish along with the growth of fresh vegetables.”
In future weeks and months St. Paul’s will be seeking how to meet the need of the HIV/AIDS community in Tyler, having learned of a rising population of infected teenagers in the county. He notes, “These individuals and their families are in search of their own peace and their own sanctuary and the Church should be that puzzle piece to them.” This new ministry will likely involve testing, education and support groups.
To expand their level of impact, St. Paul’s is building ecumenical relationships with local Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran Churches. “My discussion with them is simple; let us focus our commonality to address social justice issues.” This unique partnership is coming together ecumenically to lay out a map of the community -- to pinpoint the populations they are reaching with services, but more importantly find areas and people who are falling through the gaps. Adds Pastor Todd, “Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.”