In the 1980s, Salinas First UMC was doing pretty well.  There were two full services every Sunday morning.  The MYF was active.  There was a nursery and a Sunday School program.  The United Methodist Women had several active circles. 

          Then in the late 1990s we began a decline.  Attendance dropped.  The MYF program merged with that of a nearby Episcopal church, and by the middle of the first decade of the 2000s had stopped entirely.  Sunday School attendance declined until there were no more classes, and the nursery was also closed.  Some of us who remained in the church were concerned that Salinas UMC might close altogether.

          In 2009 the pastor, recognizing that the church was not doing well, embarked upon a program of community service that he thought might give some help to the neighborhood and a purpose to the congregation.  There had always been a food pantry where people in need could get lunch or some basics to help put food on the table, as well as a Pastor’s Discretionary Fund, which provided bus fare or other help to those who might ask, but the new program went farther.  It started with Sunday morning breakfasts cooked in the church kitchen and bloomed into a daily lunch program which now serves 150 people each day.  Sunday School classrooms, which were once used for support group meetings in the evenings, are now open again at night for AA and other support groups to help those in crisis to manage their lives.  Medical and dental providers come to give free medical services to those unable to afford them on their own.  And there are counseling services for adults. Other churches in the area have joined the program also, coming on a particular weekday to cook and serve lunch.  The program also gets financial support from churches in the Santa Clara Valley.

          At first there was resistance to the program from both inside and outside the church.  Some congregants were uncomfortable with “those people” having access to the building and being there when service goers would be coming for worship.  The local merchants accused the church of drawing homeless or addicted people to the downtown area, bringing trash and panhandling to downtown.  At present most churchgoers enthusiastically support (or at least tolerate) the Neighborhood Program, though there are still some who would like to see it disband.  The Merchants Association has also become less antagonistic, and the Salinas City Council has given our pastor, Jim Luther, and award honoring the church’s services to the homeless.

          With this new mission, the church has slowly begun to grow again.   The “casual” 9 AM service has welcomed new people from the Neighborhood Program as well as the community at large, and the “traditional” 11 AM service has at least remained stable.  An active Tongan contingent adds their celebration and music to the life of the church.  There are still new ways to grow and things to do, but compared with the early 2000s, the outlook for First UMC seems brighter now.