New Horizons: Collins Memorial UMC reaching out to serve
By GLENN HANNIGAN
It is a problem most churches would relish: running out of seats.
While it is not uncommon for some sanctuaries to fill up on a Sunday morning, Collins Memorial UMC in the Atlanta-College Park District has a unique seating challenge. It is not its Sunday morning service that has been filling to capacity, it is its Wednesday morning service, where people begin lining up an hour early to get in.
“The service keeps growing and the sanctuary is full,” said Pastor Randy Walworth. “We can squeeze in about 220 folks and that’s how many have been showing up.”
Wednesday morning took on special meaning at Collins Memorial three years ago when the church decided to expand its food pantry, which had been giving out about 10-15 bags of groceries throughout the week.
Church volunteer Cindy Corona stepped up to organize the ministry. She enlisted the support of the Atlanta Food Bank to help stretch purchasing power.
Corona thought it would be more efficient and effective to invite everyone who needed food to come to the church at the same time each week.
With all its efforts focused on Wednesday morning, the food pantry expanded rapidly. Two years ago, volunteers were providing bags of groceries for 160-200 people each Wednesday. Now, the church serves 350-400 people each week.
But before the bags of groceries are handed out, the church holds a worship service.
“It is not mandatory that anyone attends worship to get food,” Walworth said. “It is strictly voluntary. When we began the service in June 2010 we had a couple dozen people show up. It has been growing ever since.”
In fact, enthusiasm for the Wednesday morning service has reached a point where the attendees asked to start their own choir. The Wednesday morning crowd at Collins Memorial is predominantly African American, but also includes Latinos and some Caucasians.
“We have about 20 people who participate in the Wednesday morning choir, which includes some very gifted soloists,” Walworth said. “Most of the people at that service attend other churches but they consider this their second church home.”
Though the sanctuary on Sunday morning is not nearly as crowded as it is on Wednesday morning, Walworth believes the success of the food pantry has energized his church and brought new people into the Sunday morning worship as well. Attendance has been steadily increasing over the past few years as well as giving to the church.
“Our members feel good about this church,” Walworth said. “We believe we are doing what the Lord has called us to do. We want to be a loving, welcoming church.”
It takes about 24 volunteers to handle the Wednesday morning effort, about half of which are members of Collins Memorial and the other half from the surrounding community.
Collins Memorial was recently awarded a $40,000 grant which it will use to purchase a used box truck to pick up the heavily discounted food products it receives from the Atlanta Food Bank.
“We have been transporting food using personal cars and pickup trucks,” Walworth said. “A truck would be a great help to us.”
But even a truck has its limits. It can’t help with overflow seating.