Pastor Cole Meckle started Gather Church seven years ago because he wanted to bridge the gap between churches and faith-based, hands-on ministries. Before starting his own church, Cole had worked with another church and extensively with the Union Gospel Mission. It was during this time that he realized the two should be one.
“Each one of these groups need each other,” Cole explains. “The desire was to re-integrate the day-to-day ministries like Love INC., Lewis County Gospel Mission, etc., and bring those back to the center of community life within a congregation because of the need for one another.”
Although not a “mega-church,” the congregation of 300 fully supports all of the Gather Church’s programs. In fact, in addition to the Eat Free Café, clothing and food banks, haircut program, classes, worship services and Bible studies, the congregation runs a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit with its own board that operates low income housing in Centralia.
Cole actually runs a family business to support his own family so that the church can use more of its funds towards their many ministries, which have grown in leaps and bounds since they began.
“We’ve grown from having a tiny, certified kitchen with a ‘do what you can with what you have’ attitude,” says Cole. “But the goal is not just to serve people food, but to build relationships and recognize they have needs beyond the hunger need. And maybe that issue is the reason why they have a hunger need. If the problem is the person needing to rely on generosity to receive food and is being fueled by a substance abuse, then we want to treat the substance abuse. This is also a symptom of a deeper problem – more often than not it’s childhood trauma. So we really need to treat the reason people are choosing to use.”
Treating the Person, Not the Symptom
What Cole describes above is the very heart of the Church’s mission. Cole explains that you “can’t just detox a person physiologically, but you have to deal with why they are choosing to use in the first place. And in order to do that, in order to deal with the actual causes of which substance abuse is a symptom, you have to get to know the person.”
And this is a major component of their homeless ministries, including their Eat Free Café. Critics of their work often ask Cole if what they are doing (offering free food, free clothes, etc.) is not just enabling these people to keep living the way they are. Cole’s answer is simple, yet powerful. “When it comes to an addict – and that’s just a small percentage of who we serve – the meal is just a vessel we use to build a relationship, in order to establish trust, to instill hope that life can be different and then help them process whatever it is that has them thinking that using a substance is a good idea.”
Cole notes that the statistics are staggering when it comes to having data to back up this method. He says 90 percent of women with substance abuse have been sexually abused. “Their using drugs to anesthetize the trauma of that abuse,” he adds.
The Eat Free Café is open Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and will serve food to anyone who comes in. Oftentimes, they ask people to do something if they are able, as a way of paying it forward for the meal. For example, they send people out to sweep the sidewalk or street. They have several people who are involved in beautification of the city including picking weeds and cleaning up garbage and they send people out to do that on a regular and growing basis. The café serves 800 meals a week, with about 200 unduplicated people. Twenty-five percent are homeless.
Another thing Cole often gets asked is if the homeless population in the area is growing because people are coming here from other cities to use these programs. Cole says that on one hand, there is a level of truth to this, but it is a small number.
“The majority of influx is related more closely to city and county police that are displacing people from homeless encampments so they have nowhere to go,” Cole responds. “They used to have some kind of tent city in different parts of the community, but understandably because of health related, privacy, or use of land issues, they have been told they have to leave. It’s not that the police or others shouldn’t be doing this. But it’s not true that the influx is being created by people coming into the area. When I talk to the homeless people who come to our programs, they have deep ties to this community. It’s their home.”
It Takes a Village
Gather Church is definitely not alone in their efforts. They work with many local and regional organizations with similar missions, including Child Protection Services, Juvenile Court, Drug Court, Mental Health Court, law enforcement, Department of Social and Health Services, local schools, and many others. For example, Cole teaches a class through the Juvenile Court System for both children and parents that explains the effects childhood trauma has on the brain, body and behavior.
Free Hot Soup, another local area group that was offering free meals, was being told they couldn’t continue service because of food handling regulations, so they joined with Gather Church and provide meals Sunday and Wednesday nights at the Eat Free Café.
Finally, they have a new partnership forming with Core Health from Longview, Washington. This group helps people with mental conditions and addictions without the use of medications. They get to the core of problems, usually past trauma, and work on addressing that instead of just treating the symptom. For example, someone may have an alcohol addiction because it is how they cope with the trauma they experienced as a child from abuse.
For more information about the Gather Church and how you can get involved, visit the Gather Church website.
Eat Free Café
408 W Main Street
Centralia, WA 98531