This Church’s Outreach Approach Recycles Much More than Clothing and Furniture
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“I needed clothes and you clothed me.”
By L. Mackenzie
On December 15, 2008, leaders of The Crossing in Quincy, Illinois, were discussing possible changes to their benevolence strategy. Several of them had just visited a church in Post Falls, Idaho, where they sought out ideas for growth. Elder Bruce Freeman was among those who listened as an idea for a thrift store ministry was discussed. Freeman was head of benevolence, a man passionate about helping others. He also had 25 years of experience working in the retail clothing world and had run four stores of his own. He realized he was the person who could lead this brand-new, experimental ministry.
The group approved moving forward with the thrift store approach.
“Our line item for benevolence [back then] was $18,000,” recalls Freeman, who now serves as benevolence pastor with The Crossing’s million-dollar thrift store ministry. How did this become a ministry that both employs and clothes people in need? Through a combination of humble leadership, a healthy dose of the Holy Spirit, and a huge heart to serve Jesus by clothing the least among us.
Impacting Local Communities
The clothing ministry began with a $3,000 budget and a small team. The Crossing has a penchant for taking unused/abandoned buildings and repurposing them. In this case, they chose an unused grocery warehouse space at their church location in Macomb, Illinois, because the rent was free.
After just two announcements from stage in Quincy, donated goods poured in for the ministry. Another elder offered his semitruck, and it soon was packed with clothing, furniture, and wares ready for shipping to Macomb about 60 miles away. Before long, a mountain of clothing piled up at Macomb as volunteers sorted and put everything in order. The space smelled musty and floor tiles were broken and stained, but volunteers worked with what they were given.
“Every rack was used or donated,” Freeman says. “The space was ugly. The lighting was horrible and didn’t work. It was a mess, but at the end of opening day, there was $450 in the register,” he remembers with a smile.
And now—with eight stores in six locations across two states—Freeman certainly has many more reasons to smile.
In 2019, the stores employed 70 and fed 2,257 families through the associated food pantry. Total revenue was $1.37 million that year and all expenses were covered. During the 11 years of existence, the stores have generated $940,000 for benevolence ministries. (See sidebar.)
Of the monies generated by the thrift store operations, 35 percent goes to pay for rent, utilities, and fixed operating expenses, while the lion’s share—61 percent—covers payroll salaries along with benefits for managers. You read that correctly: The full-time managers of Crossing’s thrift stores have outstanding comprehensive healthcare and a retirement plan.
The remaining 4 percent is given away as financial assistance and used for food pantry items. The Crossing was also able to fund “Blessings in a Backpack,” a program where at-risk students receive food-filled backpacks to take home from school on Fridays, which provide them with food to eat over the weekend until their next free or reduced meal at school.
Impacting Individual Lives
Some would say this ministry recycles more than just clothes. Here’s one man’s story.
Billy Cole was taken to church as a little boy, but when he grew up, “I lived however I wanted to. I wanted instant gratification. I wanted everything now.”
In between wandering and backsliding, he bounced in and out of recovery and churches. He was in a recovery program at The Crossing when a pastor came alongside him. At age 36, Billy was immersed.
However, once again, the pull of the flesh became too much for Billy. He fell back into a bad lifestyle. Trouble with illegal and prescription drugs, sex, marijuana, meth, and alcohol led directly to hospital detoxes, psyche wards, and, finally, trouble with the law. At one point, he was charged with home invasion and could have been imprisoned for 6 to 30 years. He was given probation instead but began feeding the flesh again. He stopped reporting to his parole officer, but the pastor kept knocking at the door to talk (to little effect).
When Billy was arrested again, the pastor visited him in jail. “Well, you can’t run from me now,” he said.
Fast-forward to 2018. Billy began volunteering at the ministry’s Quincy locations, loading trucks and baling clothes. Each day, when he finished, Billy began organizing the warehouse. His manager noticed and asked if Billy could help at another warehouse location.
After observing the sorting protocol there, Billy had ideas. Everything was piled high to the ceiling—a “hoarder’s paradise,” Billy called it—with only small paths to navigate through them. Billy set out to organize it all and miraculously transformed the space. It once could take two hours to find an item, but now it takes two minutes.
“Getting [the space organized] was easy; maintaining is what’s hard.” Billy confides, “It’s kind of like [my faith walk].”
Similar to how Billy has organized the thrift store warehouses into efficient and peaceful places, God is restoring Billy’s peace with who he is and what his future holds. To date, Billy has baptized his dad, eight other family members, and others. “You never know what God’s going to do,” said Billy. “Different families’ eternities are being changed every day [through this ministry].”
Freeman says of his employees and those helped by the thrift story ministry, “It’s never ‘us and them’ or ‘we gave them a second chance.’ We’re all in this together.”
Impacting the Kingdom for Eternity
“Not every store is profitable,” Freeman admits, “but [each store] gives us a presence in each community to minister.” The profitability of some stores allow the others to remain open, just as some of The Crossing’s locations financially support other multisite locations.
When one calls a store to speak with a manager, it’s not unusual for the caller to be told, “Valerie is praying for someone right now. Can she call you back?” The thrift store ministry isn’t just about selling recycled clothes; there are many opportunities to minister, both to employees and the public.
Last year, The Crossing leadership recognized that students in their communities needed winter coats. From stage, executive pastor Clayton Hentzel preached that any teacher or school worker who knew of a child in need could come to the church and receive thrift store vouchers to get clothing and coats.
Principals and administrators of local schools were stunned and thankful for the help the church offered their students and families.
“We can be the face of the church because [a thrift store is] a lot less scary than a church,” Freeman theorizes.
God alone knows the number of people who are being baptized because they visit a store where they are loved, respected, treated with dignity, and probably receive an invitation to a service to hear the gospel message of Jesus.
Christian ministry isn’t always just preaching the gospel, but also living it out in real time.
Who are the least in your local communities? How can you help serve them from a practical standpoint? Maybe a thrift store ministry could be right for your church. It certainly has been for The Crossing.
Freeman offers two key suggestions for starting such a ministry: (1) Start with what you have, though the task may seem overwhelming, and (2) Never lose sight of the purpose of your ministry and whom you serve.
For more information on how to start a thrift store ministry, contact Bruce Freeman and his team at (217) 214-0555 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
L. Mackenzie’s passion for “thrifting” is rivaled only by her love of biblical research. She serves at a multisite megachurch, where she helps find nuggets of biblical inspiration for the preachers’ sermons, and she regularly writes Bible study and small group discussion questions for The Lookout.