Statesville, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the 23rd in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

It’s nice to see a project succeed and grow. It’s even nicer when the product of that success can be used to “pay it forward” to help someone else succeed. It’s perhaps most rewarding of all when those who have been helped wish to do the same for others.

The Rev. Ed Slusser of First Presbyterian Church of Omro in Wisconsin had no idea that would be the result when he explored the idea of starting a thrift store 10 years ago.

“A member of the local Catholic church approached me with the idea of starting a community thrift store,” Slusser said.

So he explored the idea, talking it over with city officials and other church members. After deciding to go ahead with the project as a joint effort with the Catholic church, St. Mary’s, Slusser applied for a rural ministry grant and received $3,000 from Winnebago Presbytery. That money, along with funds raised by both churches, was used to start the store.

The group bought a downtown building and remodeled it into a store. The churches formed an ecumenical board made up of members to oversee the operation. The store is staffed by volunteers — not just from the churches but from the community at large. 

“My goal was to bring the community together, and we’ve succeeded in that,” Slusser said. “It’s a way to put faith values and Christian faith in practice in a practical way. It brings a lot of people together. The men and women who volunteer at the store really enjoy it.”

The store is thriving. Within a few years, the churches were able to pay off the mortgage on the building and build an addition. With the bills paid, it was time to focus on giving more to the community. Not only does the store itself provide a service, but the money made there is put back into other community projects. 

The first thing the board sought to do after the mortgage was paid was to return the money used for startup to the churches, including the $3,000 received from the presbytery. When Slusser tried to do that, Executive Presbyter Lucy Rupe had other ideas. She told Slusser about Forest Larger Parish in the northern part of the presbytery. 

Forest Larger Parish is made up of three smaller congregations — First Presbyterian Lakewood, First Presbyterian Wabeno and First Presbyterian Laona — overseen by commissioned lay pastors Dennis and Wendy Mannerings, who work together as a combined parish.

The Manneringses were exploring the idea of a community thrift store in conjunction with other churches in their neighborhood and were trying to raise startup funds for the project. Rupe suggested that instead of paying back the grant he’d received, Slusser could give it to Forest Larger to help start an operation there.

“I think this is a wonderful story of how things can come around in a circle,” Rupe said. “And I think it’s especially wonderful to see our churches supporting and helping each other. It brings them together as a family where they take care of each other.”

The Mannerings were overwhelmed by the generosity. Their thrift store, like the one in Omro, is a combined ecumenical effort with seven other churches participating. The project had received a grant from Winnebago Presbytery, and each church had contributed $200 in start-up money, but thanks to the gift from Omro, Forest Larger had plenty of money to get off the ground. 

“Omro not only helped us with money, but they helped us organize our store too,” said Wendy Mannerings. “Several of our people visited Omro to see how they run things so we could get some ideas. They’ve been wonderful.” 

That might be part of the reason that Forest Larger, like Omro, has enjoyed great success with its project. The grant it received from Winnebago Presbytery was to last three years, but the store was so successful that it only needed to use the funds for one year.

Each year the store has moved into a new and larger building, and finally, this year the group has purchased its own building. 

A board made up of members from each of the 10 churches oversees the funds the store brings in and decides what to do with them. The store has paid off its initial start-up expenses and now uses the money raised to support two local food pantries and other requests. The project recently gave money to the local police department to fund a K9 unit. 

“This has been a very significant outreach for these small communities,” said Wendy Mannerings. “It’s a very small area and it’s been mostly depressed since the logging industry left, so it’s really the only retail store in the area. Everyone shops here.” 

Yet just as in Omro, the thrift store is much more than a place for the community to shop. It has also provided a place for people to come together and share.

“It’s wonderful to see Catholics and Lutherans and Presbyterians working together and sharing faith and fellowship,” said Dennis Mannerings, echoing Slusser’s sentiments. “Part of the reason we came up with the idea to do this was to lift spirits in the community.

“It not only serves a need in the community with inexpensive clothing, but beyond that, the store gives our volunteers — many of whom are retirees — a purpose,” he said. “Plus, there are the ecumenical benefits of churches and pastors being able to get together and work together and not feel threatened.”

But what of the gift they received from Omro that helped them launch their effort in the first place? Wendy Mannerings said they haven’t forgotten about that act of kindness.

“We want to also pay it forward like Omro did for us,” she said. “We’re just waiting to hear of someone who needs our help.”

Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, NC. She is church secretary for First Presbyterian Church there.