The Gathering was started by the West Michigan Conference in 2004. It was chartered as a “mission church” three years later. The United Methodist Book of Discipline says this about a mission congregation: “It is expected that long-term sustaining funding from sources outside the congregation will be necessary to enable the congregation to exist, and the assumption of full connectional support items by the congregation is unlikely.”
However, 16 years later, a neighbor in Clare offered a better description of The Gathering.
“You know what I like about your church? You are not a show-off church. You are a do-it church!”
One of the things The Gathering does best is feed mid-Michigan’s hungry. Their food ministry, “Compassion Counts,” was featured at the 2023 Michigan Annual Conference. The Rev. Jim Noggle, founding pastor of The Gathering, participated in a panel presentation by three Christ-Centered Missions and Ministries in Michigan.
Noggle explained what happened when he first arrived in Harrison in 2004.
“We listened to the Spirit,” he said, “and learned that the community had the highest demographic of generational poverty in the state at 40%. Two to four generations were living in the same house to survive with what they could bring in.”
Noggle added, “Our prayer had to be, ‘God, send us the people nobody else wants. “And God did.”
At that time, there was no food pantry in Clare County. “It took all day for a family to travel by dial-a-ride [to the next county] for food,” Noggle noted. So, feeding the body and spirit became a priority at The Gathering.
Partnerships were established to launch the Compassion Counts Food Pantry in 2007. It was open one day a week, and they “cleared the shelves every time,” Noggle stated. At its high point, 80 churches and agencies partnered to support this vital effort.
The West Michigan, Detroit and Michigan conferences have been among those partners over the last two decades. Ministry Shares have supported the pastors’ salaries; $10,000 was allocated in 2023. Second-mile giving has helped fund the food pantry.
Due to various factors, however, most partnerships have fallen away over the years, including a COVID-19 grant that covered the cost of food during the pandemic. New church start-up money from the Michigan Conference, in the amount of $10,000, could end this year. Still, the small congregation persists, and Pastor Noggle celebrates their tenacity.
“The underprivileged people, who we often don’t pay attention to, became key players within that church,” he concluded. “At The Gathering, there are people in need helping people in need. That lights a fire. Such DNA in that church keeps them going with very few resources.”
District Superintendent John Kasper assigned Ray McClintic to The Gathering in September 2020. Noggle, now retired, comments, “I am so glad Ray is there. He has resurrected that DNA, and it’s coming back to life,”
A resident of nearby West Branch, McClintic confesses, “I have lived here since 1988, and I was not aware of the abject poverty in the area.”
Clare County is among the five poorest counties in Michigan. He reports that the need for food assistance only continues to grow. “In September 2020, we were serving 200 families of about 900 people. Last month, we helped 368 families with over 1,300 people.”
Compassion Counts is open three days a week. It is the only brick-and-mortar pantry in the area; the rest are pop-up drive-through sites.
“We are struggling right now,” McClintic says. “The COVID relief free food expires at the end of June. We will have to raise $1,500-$1,800 a month to purchase the food from the Greater Lansing Food Bank.” The 15-20 people who come to worship “give all they can” and remain determined to keep the pantry open.
They are applying for grants and looking for new partners. The Moose Club, and Frankenmuth and Hersey UMCs are joining the effort. Ways to help include collecting and donating food, sponsoring concerts and dinners, and donating the proceeds. Volunteers are also welcome to help with the distribution of food.
Pastor McClintic and pantry leaders are willing to visit churches to share the story of how Compassion Counts changes lives.
One such story involves a phone call from a 94-year-old grandmother.
“She said she hadn’t seen her grandkids in 15 years, and they want to come for Thanksgiving,” McClintic recalls. “How do I tell them I have nothing to feed them? I am eating dog food myself.”
The pastor invited her to the pantry, and she has been receiving food ever since. Another story is about a “gentleman in his mid-30s, who moved to Harrison without a job or a house.” He also visited the pantry and told McClintic one Sunday morning, “It has taken me two years, but I have finally been able to come to church.”
Ray also remembers a widow who received comfort as well as food when a church member prayed with her as she walked away carrying her bags.
“We are sowing seeds,” McClintic reflects. “When you plant seeds, they take hold in fertile ground.” He has hopes to start a newsletter, build Sunday school classrooms, and begin a grief ministry. “We have goals,” he says, “even if we don’t have money. We have God-sized dreams. When your dreams are big enough, God will see you are taken care of.”
God’s people in Harrison believe that God will provide.
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