By: Amanda Willis
A few years ago, on a hot August day, a well-dressed woman stopped into a free store to ask for help. Her husband had lost his job, and she didn’t know how to get her three children ready for school without being able to buy them new clothes.
God’s Closet, a ministry of Epworth United Methodist Church in St. Paul and Woodbury Peaceful Grove United Methodist Church, was there for her. Because of the ministry, she was able to provide her children with a basic wardrobe for the start of the school year. It was the only time she ever stepped into the store.
“Sometimes it’s heavy, learning about people’s lives that are really difficult, and we feel like we’re only helping a little,” said Carol Lindberg, co-coordinator of God’s Closet, which is open several days each week. “But we do what we can.”
God’s Closet, now in its 15th year of serving the East Side of St. Paul, was visited 6,934 times in 2015—more than any other year in its history. Sometimes it sees as many 50 adults in a single day. Each adult can fill up to two bags of items for free once a month at the store, located on White Bear Avenue in St. Paul.
The store—run by volunteers—provides mostly clothing, as well as housewares, books, videos, toys, stuffed animals, linens, towels, and blankets. The most treasured items, however, are new socks. Each person receives two new pairs a year.
The groups the ministry seeks to serve are refugees and low-income individuals or families. When the store first opened, it was mostly Hmong refugees who stopped by. Now, it’s Karen refugees from Myanmar who come most often.
Funding to purchase the items comes from individual donations, special offerings, financial support from Woodbury Peaceful Grove UMC, other United Methodist churches, other churches, and grants. The God’s Closet volunteers—who come from Epworth UMC, Woodbury Peaceful Grove UMC, Christ UMC in Maplewood, and the community—are skilled at finding good deals at garage sales, other thrift stores, and discount stores. They look for new or slightly used clothing, housewares, and other small items that could be useful. Each store shift sees about four or five volunteers.
The store not only hands out clothing; volunteers are also there to lend an ear and pray for those who are being served.
Volunteer Mary Longsdorf said that whether clients have fled an abusive situation, suffered a fire, been robbed, or live on the street, they are the reason the ministry exists and who it’s there to serve. Depending on who walks in the door, volunteers may invite clients into a prayer circle, distribute care notes (topical brochures), and/or place written prayers into a box so that Epworth UMC can read them during worship.
Recently the ministry received a $1,500 grant from the Eastside Lutheran Action Council to help purchase warm clothing for shoppers. Because of the efficiency of the volunteer shoppers, some funds will remain to purchase clothing for other seasons.
The items purchased were handed out during a Christmas party in December that welcomed the community into Epworth UMC for crafts, lunch, and a brief message from Rev. Shawn Moore of The Beloved Church in St. Paul.
The Sunday school rooms were divided into areas for teens, men, women, and children. At the end of the event, door prizes were handed out and the children received filled stockings.
God’s Closet started as a way to reach new people in the neighborhood by meeting their needs. Because Epworth UMC is not a big church, members also thought the store would help to increase the church’s visibility. The store has reached new people over the years, but the ministry has also touched the lives of those within the church.
“Our experience has been that God’s Closet blesses not only the shoppers but blesses donors and volunteers just as much, as we live out our call to witness and serve,” Lindberg said.
Epworth UMC and The Beloved are currently exploring a merger. If that were to happen, the spirit of God’s Closet would continue, said Moore.
“Epworth has a strong history of tradition, and together we should be able to do powerful things with the ministries that are already established,” he said.
God’s Closet is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and the first Saturday of each month from 10 a.m.-noon.
Donations are always welcome. The items needed most include socks for all ages, boys clothing, linens, dishes and cookware, and personal items like soap and shampoo.
Amanda Willis is communications associate for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church