New use for old building at Vestal UMC

Betsy PickleOur Town Neighbors, South Knox

Many people believe answers lie at church. Tim Jackson is one of them.

But the pastor, who serves both Vestal United Methodist Church and Magnolia Avenue United Methodist Church, is looking beyond traditional practices taking place within church walls.

Jackson believes Vestal UMC can tackle one small piece of the foster-care debacle.

When Jackson was appointed by the Holston Conference of the UMC to resuscitate the two Knoxville churches, he told them, “Most churches in America are empty most of the time. In this new world we live in, Covid closed a lot of churches permanently, and we need to focus on how we can fill these buildings up with ministry and life.”

Pastor Tim Jackson (kneeling) talks with neighbors eating dinner at Magnolia Avenue UMC, the second church he pastors. (Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News)

The Vestal church’s education building sat empty for three years before he arrived.

Representatives from the city of Knoxville met with him about converting the building to relieve the housing shortage. But an appeal from attorney Margaret Held and her junior partner Chelsea Price from the Held Law Firm made more sense to him.

“They pitched the idea of turning it into housing for foster kids who are aging out of the system,” Jackson recalls. The state will pay for housing for children up to the age of 21.

“You’ve got about 350,000 kids in the foster-care system: 93 percent of those kids do not get an education; 50 percent of those kids are homeless within two years of aging out of the system,” he added.

Jackson could relate.

“I grew up hungry and homeless,” he says. “Nineteen different schools all over the South. Homeless in the first grade – I failed it. Homeless in the fourth grade – failed the fourth grade. Homeless from the ninth grade on.

“I know what it’s like to wonder, where am I sleeping tonight? Where am I getting my next meal? Where are the loving, encouraging, supportive adult relationships in my life?

“So for me, this was, like, a no-brainer, with Margaret and Chelsea and their team. I thought, ‘This is a perfect fit for what we want to do.’ Our vision was to invest in the less fortunate, the genuinely less fortunate.”

The Vestal UMC education building is a 7,500-square-foot, three-story brick building. The nonprofit East Tennessee Design Center has come up with plans to create two-person bedrooms for up to 18 young people on the upper two floors; each floor will also have a kitchenette. The first floor will continue to function as the church’s kitchen and fellowship hall, and it will be accessible to the residents.

“The kids that we’re going to be getting, these aren’t the kids who have had foster homes; we’re going to be getting the kids who had no home during that time they were in foster care,” says Jackson. “The requirements for us are … the kids have to want to go to school. We’re going to enroll them in school or trade school. Then, they’ll need a part-time job and volunteer at the church. So we know, it’s not for everyone.”

“Our church council met multiple times with foster care services, DHS, architects, attorneys, and this is gonna happen. We’re hoping that by the end of the year we’ll be getting our first kids.”

Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing South Knoxville stories.

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