Mustard Tree moves on: Homeless congregation survives with help from churches

Mustard Tree moves on: Homeless congregation survives with help from churches

Rev. Barry Kidwell celebrates Holy Communion with the Mustard Tree community at First-Centenary UMC.

When Forrest Avenue United Methodist Church shut its doors in 2010, it was Chattanooga’s 15th inner-city Methodist church to close within 50 years.

“We are now a homeless homeless ministry,” the Rev. Barry Kidwell told the Holston Annual Conference in June 2010, speaking for the community that had grown to trust the downtown church.

More than two years later, the former Forrest Avenue ministry is still homeless and hoping to receive funds from the church property’s sale.

However, Mustard Tree Ministries, as it is now known, is reaching more people today through the 15 or more churches that host, feed and clothe as many as 225 at a time. Mustard Tree still provides a hot meal on Wednesdays in downtown Chattanooga, except the numbers have swelled from 200 to 300.

Kidwell also has reason to hope for a new home base soon, as well as a place to expand his ministry.

“A lot of people think we just want to have worship services for the homeless – and that’s great, to come and worship Jesus,” says Kidwell. “But what we’ve always wanted to do is move them forward, to break the cycle with a holistic approach.”

The next step for Mustard Tree Ministries might be outside of Chattanooga in Rossville, Ga., where Kidwell and ministry partners are looking at an abandoned old school to renovate.

"If we could get this school, we could do so much,” he said. “We could transform the community as we transform people.”


After Forrest Avenue closed in June 2010, the Holston Conference Board of Trustees sold the property to developers for $750,000. The funds were endowed with 70 percent of the interest designated for homeless ministry and 30 percent designated for new church starts, according to Treasurer John Tate.

The 65 regular worshippers at Forrest Avenue moved under the Walnut Street Bridge, where Kidwell preached on Sunday mornings for the summer. In July, they started meeting at First Baptist Church for Thursday night Bible study.

That’s when First-Centenary UMC stepped up.

“It seemed a shame that we were downtown and there was no one else to offer Barry and his congregation a place,” says Cindy Ruff, a First-Centenary administrative assistant who was already volunteering with the Forrest Avenue community.

Ruff talked to the church’s pastors, the Rev. Brian Davis and the Rev. Dwight Kilbourne, who invited the homeless congregation to use First-Centenary’s Oak Street Center for worship and dinner on Sunday nights.

On Sept. 11, 2011, Mustard Tree held its first worship service at First-Centenary. “We started with about 50 or 60 and have now grown to 100,” says Ruff.

In addition to signing up Sunday school classes and the United Methodist Women to provide Sunday night dinner for the guest congregation, First-Centenary also started a monthly clothes closet. Several area churches – Harrison, Hixson, Tyner, and Signal Crest – took regular slots for serving the meal and joining in worship. Harrison UMC also brings its praise band.

“I want everyone involved, not just members from our congregation but from the community,” says Ruff, noting that volunteers from the Mustard Tree community arrive early to set up and stay late to clean up. “We’re thrilled with how God is using us.”

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In fact, several area churches were involved in the Forrest Avenue ministry, even before the building closed, says Kidwell.

Among the United Methodist groups providing food and joining in activities were Christ, Tyner, Red Bank, Burks, Hixson, and Signal Crest of Chattanooga District and Apison of Cleveland District.

After the Forrest Avenue building closed, congregations found even more ways to partner with the newly named Mustard Tree Ministries. Tyner, Hixson, and Signal Crest provided breakfast for worshippers under the Walnut Street Bridge.

Christ, Red Bank, Burks, Grace, Fairview, and Apison became familiar friends on Thursday nights at First Baptist Church, where they now take turns to provide dinner and clothing for about 225 Bible study participants.

Brainerd UMC provides a place for Kidwell’s volunteers to prepare hot meals and bagged lunches, which they hand out in downtown Chattanooga on Wednesdays. The United Methodist Women of Christ UMC provide home-baked cookies for the lunches.

Outside the denomination, Good Shepherd Lutheran provides a monthly meal at First Baptist on Thursdays, and Silverdale Baptist is beginning a Thursday-night youth group.

Last June, Signal Crest prepared to take a bigger role in inner-city outreach when Kidwell was appointed associate pastor to the Signal Mountain church, located about nine miles north of downtown Chattanooga. Kidwell’s Signal Crest title is “director of urban ministries.” His salary is paid by Signal Crest and Holston’s Congregational Development Team.

“They want to provide leadership for the ministry,” Kidwell said of Signal Crest. The church has already provided an office for Kidwell, bought a van for Mustard Tree, and invested in the start-up of a rugby league (organized by Brainerd UMC member Mark Hopkins) that could reduce gang activity.


There’s hope in the way churches have joined in Mustard Tree’s ministry, Kidwell says.

“I can see how God is shaping us, helping us to be resilient. He is the one we depend on, and he sends the right people at the right time.

“There’s unity in the broader church when we realize we have that broader purpose,” Kidwell said. “It’s given me hope – and makes me think of what all we could do if we could be even more unified.”

A few weeks ago, Kidwell learned about the possibility of a home base for Mustard Tree, close to the people it serves. Together with Michael Feely, a First-Centenary member and former Holston pastor, Kidwell is looking at vacant buildings in Rossville where Mustard Tree could provide job training and help re-build a community.

At least six of the families that Kidwell and partnering churches moved into homes now live in Rossville, located five miles from the Tennessee state line and about six miles south of First-Centenary. Many of the 15-20 core participants and volunteers in the Mustard Tree congregation live in or near Rossville, which is accessible to Chattanooga public transportation.

“Our goal is to get people reconciled with Jesus, their community and family,” Kidwell said. “In the past 12 years we’ve moved about 300 [family units] off the street, some as far as California and Maine. I know because I’ve got the receipts for the bus tickets.

“We’ve settled some in Rossville because it has inexpensive housing,” Kidwell said. “The gentrification of Chattanooga’s south side is actually pushing our people that way.”

A former textile mill town, Rossville is now “multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual,” said Feely. “It’s not the same city it was 50 years ago – it’s been through a lot of transitions – but the climate is right for what Barry wants to do.”

Feely is already negotiating with town leaders for a building that will house existing and new outreach and education programs, as well as support local ministries such as McFarland UMC's Free Store. Kidwell has his eye on the former Rossville High School building and property, where Mustard Tree could add car repair, furniture-building, handicraft, and home repair to the ministry.

“We could pay for the materials and I could get enough free labor to rehab some of the houses that are boarded up in that area,” Kidwell said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to promote over the years. We don’t want to just deal with the homeless. We want to intervene in people’s lives before they get to that point.”



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Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.