From wedding dresses to refrigerators, Miss Sephie's Closet connects church to community

From wedding dresses to refrigerators, Miss Sephie's Closet connects church to community

For today only, customers at Miss Sephie's Closet can fill up a paper bag with clothes for the price of $5.

A boy finds a ball cap and a pair of Eddie Bauer khakis. His sister looks longingly at the jewelry rack, then picks out a necklace. After the teens make several selections, their mother begins to stuff the purchases into the bag.

Shirley Wallace, a church member, stops her.

"You can get more in the bag if you roll the clothes instead of fold them," Wallace says, while helping the woman re-pack her purchases.

It's Saturday at Niota United Methodist Church, where church workers are serving their community through Miss Sephie's Closet. The old house sits next door to the church -- the former home of a church member -- but now it is an outreach center providing low-cost clothing for the community and a means of supporting other missions.

"This is a real way to connect -- and people are beginning to refer other people to us," says the Rev. Charles Ensminger, Niota pastor. "I'm proud of this, because this outreach center came from within the church and now it's going outside of the church. That's its purpose."

The ministry was conceived at a church visioning meeting in 2006. While brainstorming ways to reach out to the community, Joni Fortney remembered hearing about a North Carolina church that started a clothing ministry in a single room. The ministry grew until it was producing thousands of dollars to fund other outreach efforts.

Church leaders looked at empty storefronts to begin a similar ministry in downtown Niota, but had their eyes on the old house next to the church. The house belonged to Sophie Sellers, a long-time church member who was loved by the community. Sellers died in 2000 and her house sat vacant for a while. Finally, a relative agreed to sell it to Niota UMC for $58,000.

It was easy to pick a name for the new outreach center -- and easy to fill up the old house's rambling rooms with discarded clothing donated by the community.

"We filled it up pretty quick," Arlene Bell says. "We're stuffed to the gills."

Miss Sephie's Closet first opened in January 2008 and is now open Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. About 14 church members serve as regular volunteers, including one member from First Sweetwater UMC. In addition to offering low-cost clothing, the ministry provides free clothing to victims of house fires or other families in need. Ensminger, a volunteer firefighter, is often on the front lines of connecting church to community.

"We've also had several walk-ins: Grandparents who've just gotten custody of their grandchildren and the kids didn't have a stitch," says Wallace.

Two bridal gowns have been sold -- one for $30, another for $10. Some people who come for clothing are directed to the church food pantry or to the pastor's office for assistance in paying their utility bills.

The ministry has earned about $10,000 since its beginning. Ensminger says the congregation is assessing how to use the funds.

"We're deliberately deciding that this money doesn't stay with us, but has to be utilized in mission and ministry," he said.

So far, the money has been used to buy a $400 refrigerator for a family living in an old farmhouse with only an ice cooler. Recently, the outreach center sent $1,000 to Forrest Avenue UMC's homeless ministry in Chattanooga. Money has also been set aside to send four church members to the Church of the Resurrection's Leadership Institute in Leawood, Kans., on Oct. 8-9.

The outreach center's success is inspiring the congregation to develop a youth ministry and to consider moving the food pantry from the church building into Miss Sephie's house, Ensminger said.

Niota UMC has 85 in average worship attendance and is located in the Cleveland District.