Two churches rooted in the central city minister to the immediate neighborhood
At a time when some churches are closing their doors due to a decade-long drop in people in the pews, two churches in Downtown Peoria are stepping up and stepping out as models of morality, hope and help in the neighborhoods they inhabit.
First United Methodist Church and Riverside Community Church both have congregations made up largely of people who live throughout the city and region, but they have rooted themselves in Downtown Peoria in order to serve central Illinois’ neediest citizens. While they approach their ministries differently, both play a vital role in the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of their immediate environs.
‘We are where God has planted us to be’
At nearly 200 years old, First United Methodist is the oldest Protestant church in Peoria.
It started as a missional outpost at various addresses Downtown before settling in at its current spot on the corner of Perry and Hamilton. Two additions have been made to the original 1917 building, but through all the growth and change, there has been a singular focus.
“The church welcome [from 1917] says, ‘This church exists not for itself, but for the community in the midst of which God has placed it,’” Pastor Tim Ozment said. “In 1957, they had a conversation about staying downtown or moving, and the church restated that statement, not quite verbatim, but pretty close.
“We are where God has planted us to be, and we need to stay here for the people who live around this church.”
For First UMC, that means maintaining programs beyond church services. There’s a weekly non-denominational grief support group and a community-building group for mothers of young children. An art gallery on-site allows people to study the connection between art and faith. Church volunteers travel a few blocks away to provide after-school art, choir, tutoring and Bible study classes for students at Lincoln K-8 School.
One of the most beneficial services First UMC provides is one of the most unconventional. Unhoused individuals can get help completing paperwork for birth certificates and state identification every other Wednesday. The church even subsidizes the required filing fees. It’s a game-changer.
“You can’t sign your kids up for school if you don’t have an ID. You can’t get an apartment if you don’t have an ID. You can’t fill out an application for a job without an ID,” he said. “So that’s one of the niches that we found and have been helping people with.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Loaves and Fish is a more traditional way to help people in need. The program started before Ozment arrived, but he’s proud of the free meals, food pantry options and medical services it provides for up to 300 people every Saturday.
When a fire burned down a local soup kitchen, First United Methodist stepped up so that people wouldn’t go hungry. It was supposed to be a temporary effort. The ministry has continued for 26 years and pulls volunteers from multiple faiths and organizations.
When bellies are full, souls still need to be fed. First UMC offers a casual service on Saturdays for Loaves and Fish attendees, who may not have transportation to the church a second day. Traditional and contemporary services are available on Sundays. The church also offers a bilingual service for Peoria’s Hispanic community.
‘A church in the city, for the city’
Just a few blocks from First United Methodist, another congregation is ministering to the Downtown community in its own way. On any given Sunday, you’ll find Pastor Michael Ritchason preaching in jeans, a hoodie and tennis shoes. It may seem too relaxed for some, but it’s deliberate.
“I want people to know you can just wear whatever,” Ritchason explained. “I want it to be a place where you don’t have to have the suit and tie. You can if you want to, but I want to make it a space where no matter your background, no matter your budget, no matter your individuality, you have a place here. You can find a home.”
Riverside Community Church (RCC) began in 2000 when Pastor John King, Ritchason’s father-in-law, felt drawn to serve in Downtown Peoria. At first, the church didn’t even have a building. Parishioners met in the conference room of a Downtown hotel.
When the Shrine Mosque building on Monroe went up for sale, it seemed perfect. Unfortunately, the $3 million price tag was prohibitive. Through what Ritchason calls “a miracle that only God could do,” the church purchased the building for just $550,000.
It left RCC with enough money to renovate and to start helping people.
“Riverside, since its inception, has been in a church in the city for the city,” Ritchason said. “And very early on, we just felt we wanted to reach out to our neighbors, our neighborhoods. About a year after we were in this building, Pastor John, our founding pastor, was at a conference in Arizona. He heard from somebody who had started the Los Angeles Dream Center. And while he was out there, the Lord gave him a vision for a Dream Center here in Peoria.”
The vision was there, but again, the building wasn’t. The congregation started visiting neighborhoods a few blocks away where they could help people with household needs like shoveling snow or painting porches. In 2004 they purchased the old YMCA building on Hamilton Boulevard and formally opened Dream Center Peoria, one block away from RCC.
Throughout the year, Dream Center Peoria (DCP) hosts many specialty programs. Backpack Peoria lets families register for school, pick up a backpack filled with school supplies, and get their children’s required medical and dental exams. Serve the City unites people twice a year to perform service projects for Peoria neighborhoods. PROMise of Hope ensures high school girls can attend PROM feeling beautiful and dignified by letting them select a free dress and donated accessories.
Day to day, DCP has a shelter for those in need of a place to sleep. A housing program with life skills training is available for families trying to break the cycle of homelessness. Job skills classes, coffee shop training, and gardening classes are available to help people out of poverty. After-school tutoring and mentoring give children and teens a foundation to grow.
RCC also offers classes to supplement Sunday services. Weekly Wednesday night topics include Bible study, divorce support, and financial literacy. Ritchason has seen these smaller groups significantly impact people’s lives, and expresses gratitude that his congregation welcomes those seeking transformation.
Their most recent project, The Riverside Peoria Fridge, is literally an industrial fridge where people with food insecurity can take what they need. Built into the side of the church, it is open six days a week. Up to 900 people a week get fresh produce, milk, bread and other staples donated by businesses and individuals.
Ritchason calls the fridge visitors “guests,” a term used to ensure each person gets treated with dignity. A community has formed around the fridge that includes people unaffiliated with the church who donate money, drop off food or have stores deliver groceries.
“I know being a church in the heart of the city is sometimes hard, but I know that when God called us to this almost 23 years ago that it was to love people, to encourage people, to pray for people,” Ritchason said. “I’m so grateful for the community. This city is incredibly generous when given the option to help the less fortunate. I’m so grateful that the Lord allows us here at Riverside to be a part of that.”
Mandy Woll is part of the ministry that travels to Peoria Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army to pick up those who would like to attend church services. “It has made a profound impact on my life being able to sit and listen to what these individuals have gone through and what they are trying to overcome,” she said.
“Riverside has shown myself and my family what it’s like to love others and meet people exactly where they are, no strings attached. I’m not sure what the city would do without such an amazing church.”
To learn more about these congregations or to volunteer, visit fumcpeoria.org and riversidepeoria.com.