Jan. 12—As much as The Open Door Ministry has changed over the past year, yet another change is afoot.
As of Jan. 31, the Long's Chapel United Methodist Church will no longer be operating its meal preparation/food distribution and Second Blessings Thrift Store out of the 32 Commerce St. location in Frog Level.
That's when its lease expires and all items in the sprawling 15,000 square-foot building must be moved out. The ministry has operated out of the Frog Level location for 23 years.
A transition plan in place includes partnering with First United Methodist Church in Waynesville to continue food services until a permanent location is found.
The thrift store, the largest one in Haywood, will close at the month's end and open in a month or two as an online store until a site is found where, ideally, both the kitchen and store can move, said Laura Shepherd, the Open Door manager.
The thrift store not only provided a place where the community could recycle unwanted items, but grossed between $19,000 and $23,000 a month to help offset the costs of the ministry.
At its zenith, the Open Door served 1,000 hot meals a week and offered a gathering/prayer space for the unhoused, the lonely and the working poor in the community. In addition, the sprawling site once offered laundry and shower facilities, food distribution and even a mail service and phone charging stations for clients.
Operations changed drastically in March 2020 when COVID prevented indoor gatherings and the meal and food distribution changed to a walk and drive-through model.
After the lease terms changed in June 2021 to prohibit meals being served from the 32 Commerce St. location, the hot meal service continued in the parking lot at St. John's Church, just a block away.
"I'd say 98% of the people who show up are food insecure," Shepherd said. "They have vehicles and drive to the location."
Beginning this week, the mobile food operation will move to Grace in the Mountains Episcopal Church's lower parking lot, Shepherd said. Once the Open Door kitchen closes, meals will be prepared at the First United Methodist Church, where there is also a Client Choice grocery store in the former parsonage.
This store offers free food to those in need, and will temporarily operate for additional days with the help of volunteers from both churches, Shepherd said.
Currently about 1,200 hot meals a month are given out during the noon hour each week day, and those showing up can get a backpack of food to tide them over until the next day, Shepherd said. In addition, the ministry packages food brought in through donations and MANNA Food Bank in Asheville and delivers about 15,000 pounds of food to homes across Haywood County.
Shepherd praised First United Methodist Church leaders for stepping up during the transition.
"They have been just wonderful," she said. "They say yes to everything we need. We're hopeful this can be a long-term partnership."
Chris Westmoreland, the senior pastor at Long's Chapel United Methodist Church, provided an update on the Open Door in a recent newsletter to the congregation.
"We have been working diligently to secure new space to continue to help feed and restore hope and self-worth to all that we serve by encountering the love of Christ," he wrote. "Finding a new location for the kitchen and the thrift store combined has been a struggle as the real estate market is limited and expensive. We have looked at numerous possibilities and continue to do so. God is still moving and working. The Open Door staff and volunteers have been preparing for transition even though the next place God is leading us to is not yet clear."
While using the campus of Long's Chapel for a mobile food distribution is an option, many see advantages to staying close to downtown, the Westmoreland said in the newsletter.
Meanwhile, there are still thousands of items that must be moved out of the building in less than three weeks.
The process has been underway for several months, Shepherd said, and a liquidation sale at Second Blessings is underway where everything in the store is 75% off.
In anticipation of reopening a smaller thrift store, some shelving and display tables will be stored. Open Door leaders are hoping someone with available storage space will step forward to temporarily house these and the kitchen items that will be needed once a new site is found.
For the final exit, volunteers will mobilize between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Jan. 22, 27, 28, and 29 to move food items to the First United Methodist Church and other items into storage. By then, Shepherd is hoping the liquidation sale, along with ceasing to accept any new donations, will whittle the piles down to a manageable level.