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COLUMBUS — It started with an idea Beth Jeffers shared with her Sunday School class — an idea to start a community clothing closet. Children’s clothes, women’s dresses, slacks, blouses, men’s suits, all free to those who need them.
The Father’s Closet is up and running at First United Methodist Church in Columbus less than two years after the concept first took root.
"It was prayer-driven, something we could do to help people," said Jeffers. "We all have so many clothes, and we knew there had to be people out there that need clothes."
Her Sunday School class seemed the right place to begin. Its name is Hands and Feet.
"That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Be the hands and feet (of Christ)," said fellow class member Amy Ellis. "We want to be a ‘doing’ class, not a ‘talking’ class."
Last month, the heavy rumble of a wide metal door rolling up signaled the arrival of volunteers at the Closet site. It was once garage space, behind the Good Samaritan Medical Clinic at College Street and Sixth Street South.
When the Sunday School group first approached the church about space for the project, the empty garage was suggested. It needed some work, but thanks to donations, air handling equipment and necessary racks and shelving were installed. A call went out to the congregation for gently used clothing. It was abundantly answered.
On designated workdays, clothing is sorted and hung, ready for referrals the Closet receives from area agencies. Some are for individuals, some for parents and children. Others are for families devastated by events such as house fires.
In this April 18, 2018 photograph, Beth Jeffers, foreground, and Amy Ellis make sure clothing is tidily displayed at The Father’s Closet, a clothing ministry underway at First United Methodist Church in downtown Columbus, Miss. Jeffers and Ellis are members of the Hands and Feet Sunday School Class, which brought the idea to the larger congregation. All clothing is free.
(Photo: Luisa Porter/The Commercial Dispatch via AP)
"We’re working with United Way agencies and other organizations like St. Vincent de Paul," Jeffers said. The goal is to spread the message about The Father’s Closet throughout the community network. It ties into a vision called "Be the Church."
"’Be the Church’ was an initiative from the congregation," said First United Methodist Church Senior Pastor Jimmy Criddle. "It originally began as ‘Don’t just go to church, but be the church.’" The thrust is outreach. Members go into the community for service projects, sometimes partnered with other organizations.
"We feel mandated by Christ to serve those in need, and there are a number of ways we do that," Criddle said. Local First United Methodist Church mission partners include agencies like Helping Hands, Loaves and Fishes and Good Samaritan Medical Clinic. Now The Father’s Closet joins the outreach.
Organizers of The Father’s Closet paid attention to detail as its mission was developed.
"We wanted to go about it the right way," Jeffers said. To help ensure that, they consulted with Columbus Community Outreach and its director, Glenda Buckhalter, who in 2015 began an initiative called On Common Ground. It brings nonprofit agency directors in Columbus together to stay apprised on what each brings to the table when it comes to meeting community needs.
"We can talk about what’s working and not working and help avoid duplicating services," Buckhalter said. Nonprofits are better informed about what each of them does, better able to make useful referrals as they serve clients.
United Way Executive Director Danny Avery said "it provides us a forum for comparison and keeps communications open between the agencies.
"If we’re all doing what we do best, not duplicating but referring, it maximizes donated dollars. We don’t want to be competing services, we want to be complementing."
Buckhalter is pleased to have The Father’s Closet in the On Common Ground circle.
"Clothing is definitely a factor (in helping people)," she said. She shared an account of a single mother who was "put out and all of her belongings, including the children’s, just kind of thrown away." The Closet was able to fulfill their immediate clothing needs at zero cost.
"For the clients we serve, sometimes even $5 is a lot," Buckhalter remarked. "They don’t have anything in many cases."
Sensitive to client dignity, Buckhalter praised what volunteers have done to date with the Closet.
"It’s so neatly done, and they inspect all the clothes; some of them are even new," she noted. "Clients can go there and feel like they’ve gone shopping."
For now, clothing needs for The Father’s Closet are being met by the First United Methodist Church congregation. Anyone in need of clothing, including clothes suitable for interviews, is encouraged to contact a United Way agency, such as Helping Hands or Salvation Army, for a referral to The Father’s Closet.
Volunteers look forward to becoming an increasingly beneficial resource in meeting community needs.
"It is in the DNA of who we are as people of faith, and particularly this congregation and where it is, in the heart of our community, to try to show we have a heart for this community." Criddle said. "One way we express that love and compassion is through our outreach ministries."
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