New church plant focusing on underserved

Date Posted: 9/8/2022


 
By Ronnie Crocker
 
It used to be that when First United Methodist Church in downtown Texarkana, Texas, let out on Sundays, members of the youth fellowship would race to Bryce’s Cafeteria for lunch before heading over to the Paramount Theater to catch a movie.
 
“We’d have to rush to beat the Baptists,” Mary O’Farrell recalled the other day.
 
After the show, and later a snack at the drugstore inside the Grim Hotel, O’Farrell’s group returned to the church for evening services. It was, in her telling, a lively scene in a vibrant city center. Ross Perot had come up through the congregation a few years before and was on his way to becoming its most famous alumnus. The church was riding high.
 
That heyday is decades in the rearview mirror, however, and what happened next will come as no surprise. Downtown withered, as families moved away and the interstate siphoned off businesses. Bryce’s left and later closed. The picture shows stopped coming, too.
 
Church membership fell precipitously. O’Farrell, 81, is one of probably 18 active members left in a sanctuary that can seat 600. The last few pastors were all part-timers, including one who stayed over on weekends before heading back home to his farm for the rest of the week.
 


The church had banked enough money to keep going, and the members were able to keep Mary’s Closet – which provides clothing, household items and furnishings to people experiencing homelessness or other hard times – open every Tuesday. There was talk of consolidating with another church, but nothing ever came of it.
 
“We were happy, but we just weren’t growing,” O’Farrell said.
 
About a year ago, church officials approached the membership about a “restart,” offering to cover a new pastor’s salary for three years and help the congregation grow again. There was skepticism at first – “It sounded like there were going to be lots of changes,” O’Farrell said, “and you know how people feel about change” – but they eventually voted yes.
 
Enter Brant Graham, a Southeast Texas native and school administrator who retired three years ago as superintendent in Burkeville. He and his wife spent years volunteering with youth and other church groups as they moved to districts in and around the Beaumont area. Graham eventually became a certified lay speaker, and more recently an elder. He pastored in his spare time. After retirement, he entered seminary at the Perkins School of Theology and is working toward full ordination.
 
He quickly said yes when presented with the opportunity in Texarkana.
 
“It’s a big fast-paced blessing down here,” he said in an interview two months into the turnaround mission.
 
Graham, 54, said he felt drawn to work within an environment where he could minister to impoverished people and others in need. Being in downtown Texarkana is giving him an opportunity to do just that. Mary’s Closet, which O’Farrell founded about 25 years ago, will keep going and is likely to expand as Mary’s Mission Downtown.
 
The church population may be small, but the donation center allows him to meet and minister to a lot of people.

 

“Folks are leaning into our commandment to love God and love our neighbor,” Graham said.
 
He hopes some will eventually join the church. Same with the Grim Hotel, which has been renovated and is set to open by the end of the year as a 93-unit apartment complex for low-income people. FUMC Texarkana, Texas, is starting a weekly recovery meeting for people struggling with drugs or alcohol, followed by a meal and a worship service that Graham hopes attendees will stay for.
 
“The recovery community needs a place where they can be loved on,” he said.
 
O’Farrell said the church is both eager and uniquely positioned to play a bigger role in helping the people who come to Mary’s Closet. The church is within a short walk of two homeless shelters and two places that offer free meals. The center also attracts folks who live in a pair of tent cities set up “in the woods.”
 
O’Farrell applauded Graham for reaching out to these folks more directly than the church has in the past.
 
“It changed who we were and what we did,” she said. “All of a sudden, in addition to serving them physically, we were serving them spiritually.”
 
Graham called the Texarkana church “the most genuine ministry I’ve been blessed with,” and he thanked the “loving and caring” parishioners for welcoming him and his family so warmly.
 
“They opened their arms big and gracious for my wife and me, and just swept us both in,” Graham said.
 
O’Farrell hopes also to bring back some of the vibrancy that she experienced at FUMC Texarkana, Texas, during her youth.
 
“I really am excited,” she said. “It’s the best thing that’s happened to our church in a long time.”
 
Connect with First United Methodist Church Texarkana, Texas, at facebook.com/fumctxktx1874.