An Old Church With A New Mission
At its height, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Troost Avenue had a congregation of 1000 people.
Donna Simon, pastor of St. Mark’s, said this was during the boom days of the Troost neighborhood, from the 1920s to 1960s, when the area was a bustling business and residential part of town. As the neighborhood changed, though, so did the church.
“It [Troost] became wonderfully more diverse,” Simon says. “Unfortunately that increasing diversity also led to a lot of folks picking up themselves their families their businesses and running away.”
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As people left the Troost neighborhood, St. Mark’s congregation dwindled. Last year, the congregation of St. Mark’s consisted of 12 members. Without money coming in from a stable congregation, the church building suffered. For a long time it didn’t have heating or air conditioning. Cold air came in through cracks in windows and doors. Plaster peeled from the walls. The small congregation of St. Mark’s did their best to keep the Church from falling too far in disrepair, though.
“I don’t know how they managed to keep the insurance paid, the gas bills paid, but they did,” Simon says. “They have done a tremendous job.”
Durwin Rice is the director of Tulips on Troost, which plants tulips along the street to help beautify the neighborhood. About six years ago, when the organization was just starting, a member of St. Mark’s called Rice about planting tulips outside of the church. He came to see the church and meet the congregation. He was impressed by not only the church itself, but also its members. He saw St. Mark’s as an opportunity to help rebuild the Troost neighborhood—not just economically, but spiritually.
“That’s when I said the neighborhood, the neighbors, the city has to do something to help these people who have been so wonderfully caring and appreciative of the sacredness of the space,” Rice said.
Last year, Tulips on Troost sponsored a holiday program at St. Mark’s. It featured university presidents, the Kansas City Girls’ Choir and the nationally acclaimed Kansas City vocal group Octarium. It was their first major fundraising event in years and it was the community spearheading the whole thing.
“It’s a story I love to tell because I’ve yet to tell it to another church professional or seminary professor or my bishop without them looking sideways at me,” Simon said. “When you come to church people and say ‘We have this thing we do at the church and it started because members of the community came to the church and said we would like to help you rebuild,’ that’s when they start tuning me out because they think I’m telling a mythological story. “
Since last year’s lessons and carols, the congregation has doubled to about 35 members. Even though it’s small, Simon says it’s incredibly diverse. They have black, white, gay, straight, old and young members of the congregation. Also, it should be noted that on Sundays it’s not only members of St. Mark’s congregation that worship at the church. They also share their space with a Pentecostal and Baptist church.
“We have this wonderful picture of what our area of the city is like,” Simon says. “All kinds of people sharing the same space and making it sing.”
Simon and Rice are incredible cheerleaders for their neighborhood. They both say it has a reputation it doesn’t deserve.
“The history of Troost, we all know it, we’re all tired of it, we’re all kind of bored by it,” Rice said. “There’s such a list of good things happening in the neighborhood. We often look at the negative. That just makes us all suffer needlessly when we could be banding together and helping our neighbors and being a better community.”
With this mentality, Simon has defined a very clear mission for the church—serve the people around them. Services for the community the church could offer include daycare and job training. They’re working on building a computer lab. Someday soon, they hope to open a coffee shop which would employ area high school students. This could teach them how to be good employees or even how to run a business.
“We want to tell the story of our neighborhoods as places of peace and hope,” Simon says. “Places where people can have mazing lives and can realize their most extraordinary dreams.”
In order to offer these services, though, they need to get everything up to code. The walls need to be plastered. The basement needs to be restored. They have an organ that hasn’t been serviced in decades. All in all, to get the church completely done, it would cost about $1 million. Simon and Rice are on their way to getting it. This weekend, St. Mark’s held its second annual holiday fundraising event.