Take a moment to read these stories of members and friends sharing the power of God’s love through involvement at Forest Hill Church. See how Forest Hill lives out its mission of being a welcoming, learning, worshiping, witnessing, and discerning faith community.
LaDon Headen: Forest Hill Church – A “Doing Church” Where Relationships Are Formed
Shannon and LaDon Headen became acquainted with Forest Hill Presbyterian in 2013 after attending a friend’s wedding here. Shannon and their daughter Lotus attended for two weeks, LaDon joined them on the third, and they along with their two other children Lyric and Zen, have been coming ever since. Shannon is now the Director of Youth Ministries, and LaDon serves on the Nominating Committee, works the soundboard during worship services, and has taught Hip Hop classes as part of Black History Month programming.
What stood out about Forest Hill to both LaDon and Shannon was its outreach – that it, as LaDon said, “did help other people, did more than just talk about what we should do and actually put things into action. This is a church that is actually doing, a doing church.”
What keeps LaDon coming back to Forest Hill also are the connections that he has made and relationships that he has formed that he would not have made in his everyday life. “And in doing that,” LaDon reflected, “I’ve gotten to know people and stories and events. And the talents and time that some of these people have given have enriched my life and made my life better.”
LaDon gave the example of how fellow member Jacob Stauffer became a role model for his eight-year-old son Zen. Jacob graduated from Villa Angela-St. Joseph in 2016 and played on the basketball team. Zen, while attending a game, observed the discipline of the student athletes and how they handled themselves both on and off the court. He was quite impressed with the players and grew in admiration, specifically for Jacob. LaDon said, “And now Jacob has this admirer, this fan that he never had before. But in addition, my son had another person that he could view as a role model.”
Grace Uhle: Forest Hill Church – A Guide on the Inward and Outward Christian Journeys
Grace Uhle believes “the Christian life is supposed to involve both an inward journey and an outward journey.” A member of Forest Hill for 12 years, she exemplifies this by attending worship regularly, maintaining a personal prayer practice, participating in adult education classes, and helping out with the Abundance Pantry program.
Grace helped to establish New Life Community in 1987, a transitional housing program for homeless families. While there, she observed that the children had very prescribed lives and were beholden to the schedules and needs of their families. “I’m very interested in the arts and creativity, so I tried to think of a way that we could have a program at New Life that would help the children have some pleasant times.” Grace had an idea to create a place where the kids could have some choices about what they do, but couldn’t quite get the idea off the ground.
That was until the fall of 2007 when Grace took part in Faith Leader, a lay leadership program at Forest Hill Church. For her Personal Plan for Ministry, Grace co-founded “Hands-On-Art” at New Life Community. Twice a month for about an hour kids come together and make art – “expressive art with a lot of choices for the kids as to what they do with it: what colors they use, what kinds of brushes, how they manipulate the clay, all those things are up to them.” She reflected, “The kids were usually very pleased, and I think it was enriching for them. They were usually eager to come back. I think for some of them it was just a chance to do something fun that didn’t have a lot of requirements.”
“Hands-On-Art” was established in the spring of 2008 with Grace herself continuing to volunteer for the next six years. The program still exists today in what is now Family Promise of Greater Cleveland. When asked about her take-away from the experience, she commented, “It’s very important to be in small groups in the church, and have some accountability and inspiration to new learning. Forest Hill Church offers such a wealth of different opportunities.”
Vikki Nowak: Forest Hill Church – Faithful Nourishment Through Building Relationships by
As humans, I believe we yearn for connection with others. Forest Hill has become that fertile place for me – where many relationships have been seeded and blossomed. What I love most about those relationships are they are all so different and varied.
I have many friends at Forest Hill who look like me, have similar privileges as me. Some are professional peers, others are parents with teenagers like me. We wrestle with tricky parenting decisions, we lean on each other for career advice. These relationships are affirming and critical to keeping me rooted during storming times.
But then, I have so many other friends at Forest Hill who are not so much like me, who wake up each morning with challenges I may never fully know. These friends deal with things like daily discrimination, serious physical challenges, or economic uncertainty. Despite our differences, we worship together, we work together on social justice issues and lend a helping hand to one another. Outside of my college and Peace Corps years, I haven’t been able to find a similar, safe place, where people from disparate places and backgrounds come together. We don’t always agree on the path forward initially. But we are deeply committed to building God’s kingdom and we never give up on on each other.
It is these uncommon relationships that I cherish most. These relationships that provide faithful nourishment and challenge me to grow in ways that I wouldn’t on my own. Those relationships that remind and encourage me to “share abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). I am deeply blessed to have so many close relationships that I know will continue to grow, deepen my faith and produce fruit.
Paul Jennings: Forest Hill Church – Receiving Your Daily Bread (Abundance Food Pantry, Part 1)
Our Abundance Pantry provides hundreds of thousands of meals to those in the Forest Hill and surrounding neighborhoods, a far cry from the shopping cart placed in the church hallway to receive non-perishable items that Paul Jennings found when he first arrived at Forest Hill Church.
Paul moved into the Heights area in 2009. He joined the Chancel choir and became involved with Abundance Acres, a garden once plotted next to the education wing. Paul recalled, “I have over many years learned how to do organic gardening, and I’ve always felt that one of the things when times get hard that you can do is help provide people food.” Paul also attended a Forest Hill trip to Haiti and was affected by what he referred to as the “dignity of poverty. The people were proud of what they did. They laughed, they had a good time, but it was a struggle.” It was a struggle that Paul witnessed locally as well.
With the help of Paul and other volunteers, the pantry grew with food donated by local grocery stores and supplemented by produce from Abundance Acres. While the garden was a wonderful experience, its greatest yield was less than 1,000 pounds of food in a year, not nearly enough to keep up with the need. Thus, in 2012 it was decided to purchase food through the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, where larger quantities could be acquired at a lower cost. “That changed our lives,” Paul remarked.
The Abundance Pantry is now a “choice” pantry set up in South Hall each Tuesday. The average amount received by guests is 50 pounds of food with 40% fresh produce. From 2012 to 2017, the number of pantry visits grew from about 550 to more than 6,000 per year. 240,000 pounds of food were distributed in 2016, while the year 2017 is on track to reach 300,000 pounds. This equals 240,000 meals for our neighbors in need.
Paul’s goal is for the Pantry keep up with this fast rate of growth. While support from the church, two outside grants, and individual donations has kept it going so far, Paul has concerns about possible loss of funding due to recent changes in state and federal budgets. But Paul believes that just as pantry guests get by a day at a time, so too will the pantry receive its daily bread. “Every step of the way, something has happened so that we’ve been able to keep up. So I’m optimistic.”
Jean Reinhold: Forest Hill Church – Empowering individuals to live into their call
Jean writes: Many of you may not know this, but I spent about fifteen years regularly attending worship without joining. I helped out a bit with youth ministry, but basically, I came to services and left. I got my God-fix – one stop shopping, Sundays from 11-12.
I thought being an active member would mean I would have to make meals, attend marches, host homeless families, none of which really drew me in. (Thank God, however, others are moved to take profound actions for justice and mission).
I became more involved as soon as John and Clover caught wind of my particular strengths and passions: retreat leading, worship planning, small group participation and facilitation, task force assignments, writing and delivering sermons. I was even so finicky about wanting to do exactly what I wanted to do that I demanded that I get a single room for Faith Leader retreats. Selfish, I know, but my wish was granted.
What did I learn from this acute self-absorption? God wants you to know and live into your interests and capabilities. This church will do everything in its power to make that happen. Then, ta-da, those gifts and blessings can be used in the service of God with God’s people.
That recipe rings true for every single person I have met at Forest Hill. We each are on the path of discovering God’s call, celebrating the spirit’s movement, and then witnessing – within and outside of the walls of the church – to the transformative power of our individual spiritual journeys. The church’s mission is alive in and through each of us.
I don’t know of another place in society that asks you to take the radical step of discerning who you are and how you can serve, undergirded by the unwavering fact that you are a beloved child of God. Nor do I know of any other place that welcomes the diverse ways in which that manifests itself. Forest Hill Church has helped me live into my call; I honestly do not know who I would be without this place, its people, and the opportunities I have been given here.
So giving back? That’s easy to do.For me, it’s a thank you, of course. And it’s a promise that this church and I are in communion; and the church – through its people – will never give up on me or who I am meant to be.
Pantry Guests: Forest Hill Church – Being Part of the Kingdom of God (Abundance Pantry Part 2)
“Everybody has a story,”, Paul Jennings said, referring to guests of the Abundance Food Pantry as he discussed his role in Forest Hill Church’s weekly program. Two guests who were kind enough to sit down and share their stories were John and Rebecca.
John was homeless for nine years and had stayed at 2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter before securing an apartment in the Coventry area. He heard about Abundance Pantry by word of mouth. Rebecca lost her job when the golf club she was managing went into foreclosure and suddenly shut down the summer of 2016. She was directed to Forest Hill through the United Way 211 Help Line. Both have visited the Pantry for over a year.
While John is grateful for the food he receives, he also greatly appreciates how he and other guests are treated with respect, tolerance, patience, and love. He talked about the “natural order” of God’s love from one person to another. “It makes me want to follow that order, ‘cause when you take the time to do something for someone you don’t even know simply because of the love of Christ it’s overwhelming to me.” John indeed continues this order of love himself; he shops for his brother, who has medical issues, and picks up baby food for a woman in his building.
Rebecca is a single mom of two including a daughter with special needs who requires hospitalization. “Money’s tight right now trying to get by and take good care of them. I don’t come as much when the kids are at school. But, in the summer, honestly, I wouldn’t financially make it through.” Rebecca also talked about her first visit to the Pantry. “I was embarrassed because I’d never been in a situation like that and I was crying…She [volunteer Rosanna Sprague] was so kind and she just made me feel so comfortable, and that there was nothing to be ashamed of and that they’re there to help. She’s just, they’re all wonderful.”
The Abundance Pantry not only provides food for the body but also respite from the challenges of everyday life. John may have summed it up best when reflecting on the emotional benefits of the Pantry Lunch, held every fourth Thursday for its guests. “It’s a blessing because it gives them a sense of, what’s the word, normality? When you’re just being normal…just being part of the Kingdom of God.”
Ann Donkin: Forest Hill Church – Welcoming WholeHeartedly
“It was serendipity,” Ann Donkin, the new building manager at Forest Hill Church, said of the chance meeting between her and Dave Bell when their two respective choral groups shared a common rehearsal space at Disciples Church. Ann and Dave’s first interview went well, as did her meeting with the trustees. “So here I am and I’m thrilled to be here.”
Ann realized she had some pretty big shoes to fill with David Hunter serving as a “meticulous care-taker of the building” for the last 15 years. However, she has felt accepted and trusted from the beginning and remarked that David made the process very easy for her to “take over a really well maintained building.” Ann also aligns herself with the mission of the church and appreciates her supporting role. “I’ll take great care of this building from which you do this work.”
Ann commented on being accepted not only professionally but also as a person. “I’m a very non-conventional looking person…I’m a big ol’ butch. I’ve always looked this way and I don’t really care. I try to be as authentic myself as I can be and sometimes that’s not quite good enough for people.” However, at Forest Hill she has experienced otherwise. “I never got any of that here. Each person I met was just as friendly as the last and I never had any inkling that there was any discomfort at all with my person. I really, really enjoy the community of the church.”
Ann did not grow up going to church. Though she had church connections through family, friends, and other relationships, her experiences with Christianity were not always positive. “I have always had this discomfort. As a gay person it’s usually the really loud church-y people who are yelling at us. When you think about who Christ was, what he said…you know, The Golden Rule, treat others as you would be treated, be kind, love your neighbor. But these people that are calling themselves Christian are not doing that. It’s really hard to trust on a visceral level. I think that’s why having the queer flag on the front of the building is so important, and feeling comfortable when I walk in. It makes a difference.”
Since being hired at Forest Hill Church Ann has attended Sunday morning worship. She enjoys it, loves the music, and loves to sing. She also admits, “I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m still working on how it all fits together.” Ann wrapped up our time saying, “To use a church-y word that I don’t necessarily feel like I’m allowed to use, but I’m going to use it anyway, I feel blessed to be part of this community and to have been welcomed so openly and so wholeheartedly into this community.”
Do you have a story you would like to share? How you think Forest Hill is a “doing church”? What are some relationships or connections you have made at FHC? How has Forest Hill Church played a role in your inward and outward Christian journeys? Let us know!