SOUTH BEND -- A little more than a week ago, members of the United Religious Community invited pastors of seven black churches in the city -- and a few other community members -- to their table.
The topic was violence, and, more specifically, what the URC could do to help stem a recent but persistent spate of shootings.
The conversation that filled the URC building was wide-ranging and a beginning; it did not yield a cure for the violence.
But the talk was indicative of the organization's renewed purpose as it celebrates its 40th year of uniting those of differing faiths in the community, says URC Executive Director Carol Mayernick.
Just a couple of years ago, that purpose was compromised as the group battled financial difficulties that temporarily closed its two advocacy centers for the poor and threatened its fledgling staff.
Mayernick, who had worked for the URC earlier, returned to the organization, and the administration was restructured to a part-time paid staff of three that includes the Rev. Mayernick and two associate directors: the Rev. Len Jepson, who recently retired after 42 years as a Lutheran pastor, and Diane Boerstler, who leads the URC's effort to help the needy through the group's Advocacy Center, staffed by volunteers.
"When the three of us get together," Jepson says, "it's a great time."
The group has worked through its financial troubles, primarily by using its endowment to pay off a draining mortgage for its present building at 501 N. Main St., restructuring and renewing its commitment to finding funding sources and collaborating with other nonprofits to reopen an advocacy center in its building. Two other groups pay inexpensive rent for upstairs space.
The present building is in the heart of South Bend as opposed to its earlier home on the city's west side. This, they say, allows the group to serve others in the county even though it did not reopen its Mishawaka advocacy center.
"We've spent this last year being really frugal, to say the least," Mayernick says, to the nodding heads of the others.
Four decades of progress
This afternoon, the group will hold its annual meeting; "we're having a big birthday party," Mayernick says. But with a special touch: asking its members to recommit to the group's passions of learning about each other's diverse faiths and working together to help the community.
"If we don't have a major portion of our community involved, then we're missing the boat," Boerstler says.
What began 40 years ago as a unique combination of faiths with 59 congregations has, over the years, grown to more than 100 members and the establishing of such community institutions as Dismas House, the Center for the Homeless, the Food Bank of Northern Indiana, Charles Martin Youth Center and the Boys and Girls Club of St. Joseph County.
Members, who once were required to pay membership fees, are now asked to contribute to the group's goals as they can, Mayernick says.
No similar U.S. organizations list the diversity of faiths the URC includes, she says.
The most recent faith group to join the URC was the Sikhs in Mishawaka several months ago.
"As our community becomes more and more diverse, our neighbors are going to look different than we do," Mayernick says. "It doesn't mean we give up our beliefs at all. It makes us stronger, in fact."
The directors would like to bring into the fold more groups that have not traditionally participated, such as some of the black churches they welcomed for discussion recently.
During that talk, Lynn Coleman, a former South Bend police officer and assistant mayor, made such a compelling observation about violence in the city that Mayernick has invited him to speak at today's meeting.
"Lynn said, 'People don't care,' " she says. "How can the churches help the violence situation? ... We've got to move to caring."
As part of its renewed enthusiasm, the URC staff and board have ambitious plans.
Mayernick credits Boerstler's efforts in transforming the Advocacy Center from an agency that once had a reputation of not particularly caring about those who came to its doors to one that goes out of its way to help clients by being creative, working with other agencies and trying to fill the needs others do not.
For example, the center helps by providing work boots for someone starting a new job, paying for a GED test, helps provide an emergency rent deposit or to find documents needed to apply for work.
The center is open from noon to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, serving up to 115 people in a week, depending on the resources available. If they can't help a client, the workers will refer them to others who can.
"We'd love to see it funded 30 to 40 hours a week just to see clients," Boerstler says of the center. "We have incredible outcomes. Our biggest thing now is that we meet all the needs we can."
Helping youth, greater understanding
One outcome of the recent discussion about violence is that the URC, along with activist Gladys Muhammad, plans a fall session to reach out to youth in the community, Mayernick says.
And Jepson, in his role, will organize more educational sessions and involvement for young adults, who are moving more and more away from traditional faith congregations.
In the past year, he spearheaded sessions on different local faiths, such as Bahai, Judaism, Christian and Islam.
"I think people need permission to talk to each other," he says.
One of the casualties of the financial issues of the last few years was the Peacemaker awards, originally established in 2000 by the URC and Grace United Methodist Church on the city's south side in response to the shooting deaths of two Wendy's employees. A way to honor local high school students who demonstrated compassion and fairness, it eventually awarded $500 scholarships to students in all of the county's high schools.
Mayernick says she'd like to see the awards re-established, with or without the monetary gift.
"Some of the most important things we're going to be doing," she says, "has to do with youth."
But most important is the chance to bond together as people of faith.
"Celebrate what you're doing, that's wonderful," Mayernick says to individuals and congregations. "But we have a mission of solidarity with one another. What we're doing together is more important than what we're doing separately."
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