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Housing advocates fear rural low-income folks who live in aging USDA housing could be forced out, small towns are eligible for grants to enhance civic participation, and North Carolina's small and Black-owned farms are helped by new wind and solar revenues.

Former church buildings find new purpose in NC communities

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Wednesday, February 14, 2024   

In North Carolina, congregations are banding together to repurpose empty churches as community pillars to address issues like housing.

According to a study called "Twenty Years of Congregational Change," church attendance has declined, with 70% of churches seeing fewer than 100 members at their services each week.

Lynda Ferguson, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Asheboro, said the trend has affected churches in her area.

"Calvary United Methodist Church was a very vibrant church in our community here in Asheboro, with many members and a great ministry for many years," Ferguson recounted. "They found themselves, in 2018, declining in membership and attendance, and funding and other things."

The remaining parishioners joined another Methodist congregation in Asheboro, and rather than leave behind an empty building, they opted to transform it into another type of resource to benefit the community. It is now Lydia's Place, a temporary shelter for homeless women and families.

Ferguson noted in part, the decision was driven by a lack of resources. With support from the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, The Duke Endowment, Wesley Community Development Corporation and local partners, the former fellowship hall was renovated to provide 12 beds. It is the beginning of a four-phase project, with the goal of 50 beds and an emergency shelter.

Ferguson emphasized the importance of churches stepping beyond their traditional roles and embracing unexpected ways to use their resources.

"The most important thing is to be open," Ferguson urged. "To be open to what God is leading us to do. Being able to sense and know, what is the need in the community?"

Joel Gilland, CEO of Wesley Community Development Corporation, believes as churches repurpose their unused spaces, they establish a sustainable model to combine spirituality and social responsibility. He has been involved in projects ranging from providing housing for seniors and adults with disabilities, to larger initiatives in rural communities.

Gilland stressed the efforts allow churches to redefine their presence and offer services which may be more challenging for other groups.

"There's a real big push in churches now to roll the sleeves back up and to get back into the community and understand the need," Gilland observed. "We'll tell the church, 'If you go to a McDonald's and you see somebody trying to tutor a child in the middle of that sort of chaos, but you've got a building three blocks down the road that is empty, you're disconnected, and we need to reconnect.'"

Gilland sees church involvement in communities evolving toward a future in which religious buildings become pivotal centers of social support tailored to local needs.

Disclosure: The Duke Endowment contributes to our fund for reporting on Community Issues and Volunteering, and Health Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

References:  
Poll Gallup 03/29/2021

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