This Easter season, the congregation at Open Heart United Methodist Church will celebrate two resurrections — that of their savior, Jesus Christ, and that of their own church.
A new pastor, a changed name and a proactive approach to ministry are transforming a small, struggling congregation into a church that’s making an impact in its Robbinsdale neighborhood.
This month alone, the church opened an outdoor food pantry and, on March 26, it will officially change its name from South Maple United Methodist Church to Open Heart United Methodist Church aka #OpenHeartUMC.
The church was founded in Rapid City in 1959 and has long been a fixture on Indiana Street. But in recent years, the church waned and its congregation wasn’t sure it would survive. In July, Holly Sortland, of Rapid City, was appointed as pastor, and together, she and the congregation set out to revive the church.
“When I got here, the church was in steep decline, especially the children’s and youth ministries,” Sortland said. “The church had a feeling of uncertainty. The first thing we did, is we started praying. There was a real worry about the church’s financial status.”
Selling the parsonage and obtaining some grant money helped the church gain a sense of stability — and provided some funds to serve the neighborhood.
“What makes church is people, food, community and God. … Our neighborhood is a lot of people struggling economically, and a lot of them are unchurched. We’re trying to change our mission,” Sortland said. “I think we need to acknowledge the reasons people are skeptical (about church) and hear those reasons, but the way we do that is meeting them in unique ways.”
“I think people would be shocked about how many people there are that don’t know the word and love of Jesus. What I love about this church is, because of (the congregation’s) working-class background, we’re not judgmental. We welcome people from all walks of life. We really are a come-as-you-are church. Everyone’s a sinner, and we’re all here to be healed,” Sortland said.
Since July, the church has started a variety of outreach programs to serve their neighbors, body and soul.
Sortland introduced a relaxed Saturday morning worship service called Waffle Church. The service has been a success at Canyon Lake United Methodist Church, where Sortland previously served as a pastor. Waffle Church offers a free breakfast of waffles — usually heart-shaped — hard-boiled eggs and fruit.
The service is held in the church’s upgraded basement fellowship hall. Church members, including some of the youth, prepare breakfast in adjoining kitchen.
“We do a style of worship that’s very casual. We do a quick lesson and some singing,” Sortland said. “It was a means of getting people in. People who are uncomfortable in a sanctuary (will come) when you move the setting.”
Waffle Church focuses on creating time for families to be together. “Some families just live in such chaos that they don’t have time to sit down and pray and love with each other,” Sortland said. “One of the goals with Waffle Church was to give that spiritual time to families where they can have fun and learn. It’s a faith community of its own, yet it’s also a worship service.”
In January, the church initiated a partnership with South Middle School, which is just a block away, by launching an after-school program for students. For two hours on Tuesdays, kids can stop at the church for games and faith lessons they can take home to share with their families.
“It’s #TBTP, The Place To Be,” Sortland said. “Kids come and get snacks and say hello and check in with us. … They can share their highs and lows, and we pray together.”
“The kids are really responding to it. It’s amazing how many kids walk back and forth (past the church), and they don’t have a place to go after school. A lot of them would be home by themselves,” she said.
Two Boy Scout troops — Cub Scout Pack 74 and Boy Scout Troop 1187 — meet at the church, and the Cub Scouts have recently gotten involved in the church’s mission to help the neighborhood. Cub Scout Pack 74 built an outdoor food pantry. It’s stocked with information about the church and nonperishable food. Anyone who needs food can take it, free of charge. Anyone who wants to donate can leave food in the pantry, too, Sortland said.
“The Boy Scouts have been such an integral part of our church. What a cool way to give back,” she said.
The church also will serve as a satellite location for Mommy’s Closet, a resource whose main location in North Rapid City provides car seats, clothing, formula, cribs and diapers to low-income families.
The church has provided clothing to Love Inc and to people who come to Waffle Church and the #TPTB. The clothing ministry will soon launch officially as Tabitha’s Closet, named for a widow in the Bible. Tabitha’s Closet will be a free store offering clothes, shoes and seasonal needs such as winter coats. The church welcomes donations of good-quality clothes and accessories, Sortland said.
Church members also began an outreach to nearby There’s a Hart assisted living facility.
“It’s an intergenerational time of fellowship. We bring church bulletins over, and we pray with the residents and sing some songs. Kids and dogs come, as well. (The residents) just light up,” Sortland said. “It’s so important to build relationships with older folks. It feeds their spirits to be with children.”
The church’s name change this month reflects its new mission to become a place where anyone and everyone feels welcome.
“What I love about this church is (this congregation) doesn’t pretend to be what they’re not,” Sortland said. “Our congregation is more diverse. We have Native Americans, Hispanic, African Americans, Chinese. … If we want to grow the church, we have to be authentically in relationship with them. This neighborhood is incredibly diverse, and I think the church is starting to look more like the neighborhood, which is fantastic.”
The church’s efforts are already paying off. Attendance at services has doubled, and since July, 13 people have been baptized. Kids are starting a confirmation program and taking part in children’s church, Sortland said.
“The energy level has shifted. There’s more enthusiasm, a more hopeful feeling in worship,” Sortland said. “We’re in a resurrection period. It’s amazing to see.”