At a time when many families are prepping their turkeys and baking pies for Thanksgiving, Mary, her daughter Tess and Tess's own three children are looking for clothes at God's Closet on St.Paul's East Side.
"The kids love to come here and we love to come here and it's just about the best holiday treat we can give ourselves, I guess. We don't celebrate the holidays so its like any other day for us and I got to go to work, so this is kind of like relaxation before I go to work," Mary says.
While the mothers flip through sweaters and jackets, the kids play with toys and books in the corner. Visitors to God's Closet are asked to present a photo ID and are tracked in a card file. Each family is allowed two bags of clothing per month. In addition kids are allowed to pick out a toy and a book or two each visit. Tess says she's here every month, and would come more often if she could.
"Everything is so expensive, being a single mother. It's been a life saver," she says
In its first year, God's Closet served 200 families. This past year it served more than 4000. In August it moved to a new and larger space on White Bear Avenue. Harriett Livermore leans over a cardboard box of children's clothing, sorting them out into to different piles. Livermore is retired, but she keeps herself busy volunteering at God's Closet. "It's a joy to be able to help other people and we do work hard and we're tired when we go home but we think it's all worth while. We're busier retired than we were working but that seems to be the norm for retirees. We just feel fortunate that we can still give," she says.
Livermore's co-coordinator, Carol Lindberg, says God's Closet serves a wide variety of people. There are single moms, people newly out prison, and recent immigrants. Lindberg often finds herself reaching back into the recesses of her memories to try to pull out a few phrases from her college Spanish classes. Often-times she just listens to people as they talk about the recent tragedy that has forced them to turn to charity. Lindberg recalls one woman who came in just days after a family tragedy.
"As she left she said I knew that if I came here I'd get more than clothing, so that's kind of been our byline now, that more than clothing is offered at God's Closet."
Lindberg and Livermore are two of about 70 regular congregants at Epworth United Methodist church in East St. Paul. In 2001 their Pastor Terrance Rollerson was assigned to Epworth straight out of seminary. What he found was a small and shrinking congregation that was largely disconnected from the surrounding neighborhood. He set out to change that, and challenged the congregation to open God's Closet. He said at first they just looked at him with wide eyes, but five years later they are running the charity with pride.
"Small churches normally don't have ministries where we are seeing 4,500 visits in a year at God's Closet. Small churches usually don't have those type of ministries. So what they've learned is that you can do much more than what your reality says you can do," he says.
Rollerson says while the congregation is serving the community, it's members are also growing and enriching their own lives.
"There's hope. You know, we don't have to be a church that says, well our membership each year gets a little smaller, so let's just pack it in."
God's Closet is run by volunteers, and gets most of its clothing through donations, but it still pays for rent, utitilities, and new undergarments for its clients. Epworth church didn't have nearly enough funds to pay for it all, so it joined forces with its sister church, Woodbury United Methodist. Woodbury Co-coordinator Pat Marzolf says her church was looking for just such an opportunity, and God's Closet was a good fit.
"I think we just want to work wherever a need is, and there seems to be a need in East St. Paul for this kind of ministry," she says.
God's Closet was originally open only two days each week. Woodbury's congregation is larger, and younger, so in addition to funding it provided volunteers to work at the store a third day. Soon they hope to expand their hours even further.
The two congregations are part of a local network of five United Methodist churches in the area. Mounds Park church provides food to those in need, while Christ Church provides furniture. Pastor Terrance Rollerson says they are all finding ways to live out their religious values outside the four walls of their churches.