Can’t and Can Are Magic Words
By: Sherri Gragg En Español
Old River Terrace UMC proves there is no such thing as “can’t” when it comes to loving children.
Challenges and Changes
When the Rev. Greg Smith arrived at Old River Terrace UMC, Channelview five years ago, daunting challenges awaited him. The church was languishing under half million dollars in debt from when it built a Christian school fifteen years before his arrival. Not only was the school not making any money, each year that passed saw the churches coffers dwindle as its congregation aged making it increasingly more difficult to meet the payment on the loan.
And as the congregation grew older, the world outside its doors was undergoing a cultural and demographical revolution. The former blue-collar community of Channelview experienced a population boom in the 1990’s ushering in waves of Latino families into the formerly Anglo community. Bit by bit, Channelview transformed until the mission field just outside of Old River Terrace’s doors no longer reflected the worshippers in the pews.
Old River Terrace was faced with a choice: Would they resent their new neighbors or love them? But the first item on Smith’s agenda was the church’s crushing debt, and how to survive it.
A Divine Appointment
“In a last-ditch effort, I went to the school across the street and met with the administrator to offer students reduced tuition if they enrolled in our school,” Smith said. It was a divine appointment that would forever change not only the lives of the children in the school, but Old River Terrace UMC as well.
De Zavala Elementary principal Manuel Escalante explained to Smith just how poor his school really was. Through tears, he told Smith how the children would rush into the cafeteria on Monday mornings for breakfast so ravenous that it was clear they had not eaten all weekend long. Smith invited Escalante to come and speak to the congregation of Old River Terrace UMC.
“He came and shared his story,” Smith said, “Afterward, one woman in her mid-eighties, Rittie Roeder, approached me. ‘We are going to make this happen,’ she said. Then in the spirit of the persistent widow of Luke 18, she did.
Roeder’s first stop was the Houston Food Bank. Initially they turned her down, explaining that they only worked with larger organizations. Roeder countered, saying she would pick up the food and take it to the school herself. Finally, the food bank relented and gave her one box and five bags of food. The following week, the Houston Food Bank found Roeder on their doorstep once again.
“Will you give me 10 bags this week?” she asked.
The next week she was back, and the next, and the next, each time pressing for more food for the children. Eventually, Roeder convinced the Houston Food Bank to give her 35 bags of food each week that would be placed in students’ backpacks. Old River Terrace UMC decided it was time to give the ministry a name- ORT Komida 4 Kids
Today, Old River Terrace feeds every elementary school in their school district. They have welcomed a Spanish-speaking congregation into their school facility and are working side by side with them to meet the needs of the community. When Smith’s assistant left, the church made it a priority to hire one who was bi-lingual so that they could more effectively love their neighbors. Old River Terrace provides school supplies to both local students and teachers, and then treat the teachers to an end of the year barbecue at the church. They purchase Christmas gifts each year, but instead of giving them to community children directly, they give them to parents so that they are able to give their children gifts for Christmas.
A Church Changed
“We do ministry with no strings attached,” said Smith. “Our congregation has embraced unconditional love. In the past five years, their attitudes toward their neighbors has changed 180 degrees. No one speaks about immigration any more at our church. Now they love everyone who comes through our doors. No matter what they are wearing. No matter what language they speak.”
On September 19, 2018, Superintendent of Schools, Greg Ollis joined the board of trustees in honoring Old River Terrace UMC during their meeting for the way they have loved the children in their community. But perhaps the church’s greatest reward has been given by Principal Escalante. He reports that now the children who come through his doors on Monday mornings are happy kids. Each week, they run to their counselor’s office to get their food bags.
Smith has discovered there is magic in the words “can and can’t.” If a church believes it can meet great needs, they will find a way to do it. “We are a small church with limited resources,” he said. “People would think there is a lot we can't do but in reality, there is a lot we can do. There are resources all around that we can utilize. We just have to find them.”