Last summer, an empty storefront at 134 S. Washington St. was transformed into a meeting place for Grace Outrageous Ministries. Its founder, Tress Hodkinson, is a chaplain at Mercy Tiffin Hospital and pastor at Union United Church of Christ in Bascom. She established GO as a non-profit ministry.
"We do a lot of outreach and we're a place to serve the community a lot. ... a space for people to live out their faith more," Hodkinson said.
A slogan on the GO Ministries website reads "Don't go to church: Be the church." At the start of the 2012-13 school year, GO members wrote "care notes" to all the teachers in the Tiffin City Schools system. Hodkinson said some of her friends are teachers, and she knew it was a stressful time with the reconfiguration of the schools and the initial bus route confusion.
"We hand-wrote over 200 notes and attached them with a little note pad. We try to be very creative in how we serve our community," Hodkinson said.
Since opening last August, GO members have completed 15 outreach projects and given away items worth more than $600. The congregation collected 150 Bibles and drove them to Appalachia in Kentucky. Hodkinson said those making the trip witnessed extreme poverty firsthand. Last November, 32 people, including several children, went to serve food at the Cherry Street Mission in Toledo.
"They let the kids peel potatoes and stir the baked beans. They said we could bring stuff to do with the people, after they eat ... so some of the little girls brought nail polish. So, there were these homeless people and our little girls were painting their nails. That meant so much to them," Hodkinson said.
On a recent Thursday night, Hodkinson made a few announcements before worship began: the book collection was wrapping up so she could make a delivery to an inner-city Toledo elementary school; March 7 was a children's dedication service; four baptisms were being arranged; and Sister Mary Kuhlman from St. Francis is to give a presentation on human trafficking March 24.
The service began with soft music as the congregation quieted themselves and a few late-comers arrived. Hodkinson gave a Scripture reading from the New Testament, and her message made connections between contemporary people and events and those described in the passage. Communion and music concluded worship.
Most weeks, the congregation works on a project, hears a speaker or has a social hour before disbanding. Whenever a speaker comes in, Hodkinson tries to develop a related service project.
"We don't just sit and listen and then go about our lives," she said.
Hodkinson said some members consider GO their church, while others attend for regular Sunday services elsewhere and attend GO as an extra faith-based activity.
"God put the vision for GO in my heart two years ago. How I thought that was going to be played out and how it actually came to be are actually two different scenarios," Hodkinson said.
A hybiscus tree blooms in GO Ministries' front window, and framed art depicting the "tree of life" hangs in the meeting area. Back behind the main room, Hodkinson's daughter painted a "prayer tree" on the wall on which members can post sticky notes with prayer requests.
A tree seems appropriate as a symbol for Hodkinson's faith journey. She was raised in a dysfunctional family that moved frequently and had no faith affiliation. When she settled in Tiffin 22 years ago, she finally put down some roots and branched out.
"I'm kinda from all over. I was born in North Dakota. My parents were from Defiance, which is how we ended up back here," Hodkinson said. "I think that's what fuels my passion now, to reach out so that other families and other children don't have to go through all that."
She believes if someone had ministered to her mother, life might have been less tumultuous for her and her sisters. Their mother died 18 years ago. Despite the drama, Hodkinson graduated from Northwest University with a degree in business management and did well working in that field. She joined a church and took an active role.
The pastor there took Hodkinson aside and said she had qualities that would maker her a good pastor. For two years, she argued with herself and with God about making such a drastic career change. She also worried about being worthy enough to preach the word of God. By 2005, she was enrolled at Winebrenner Seminary in Findlay where she completed a master's degree.
"I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but two months before I graduated, I got hired at (Tiffin) Mercy as a chaplain," Hodkinson said.
John Halstead hired Hodkinson five years ago as a staff chaplain at Mercy. She said the first six months were difficult because Mercy Tiffin had never employed a non-Catholic female minister. With Halstead's encouragement, she managed to adjust. Now, she rotates as chaplain with Sister Irene Bishop, a Sister of Mercy, and Lukas Hafeli.
"As a chaplain at the hospital, you get to minister to people that would never darken the door of a church. You get to bring the presence of God to them, and that's such an honor," Hodkinson said.
With those duties and weekends at the Bascom church, time management can be difficult, Sometimes Hodkinson can use a certain message at both churches, but it must be adapted to the audience who will hear it. The pastor said her three ministries have meshed.
"I'm amazed at how they flow together, and how someone I've ministered to as a chaplain in the ER, in a tragedy, they know I'm a pastor and they make that connection to one of the two churches," she said. "So I get to carry on that care for them.
"That's one of the things I love ... I really can give broader care to a family because of that."
Establishing GO Ministries involved legal, accounting, logistics and safety aspects that Hodkinson had not anticipated. She recruited two women from a group she had formed (Women Enjoying Ecumenical Discipleship and Service WEEDS) as board members for GO. She said her family also has been very supportive. Her husband, Keith, has helped with promotional activities and setting up the sound system at the church.
"I just learned as I went and I've had people that have given me great advice. Even all my years of business management have not gone to waste," Hodkinson said.
The pastor likes to repeat the story of "The Towel Angel," which is posted on a wall in the back room next to an orange-striped beach towel with burn marks. The true experience happened a few years ago while she was escorting a church youth group to a three-day outdoor concert at King's Island. About 25 people made the trip.
"It was, like, 1 o'clock in the morning and we had to drive home. In one of the cars, the battery was dead," Hodkinson recalled.
Someone in the group offered to jump the battery and get it going, but something went wrong. The battery caught fire. As she was shouting at people to get away from the car, "out of nowhere" an unfamiliar man calmly walked up to the vehicle.
"This stranger says 'I need a towel.' I handed him this towel, he tossed it right on, the fire went out, and with that, he walked away," Hodkinson said.
The towel reminds her and the congregation to have faith that God will meet their needs.
In May, Hodkinson is planning a return trip to the Cherry Street Mission. More projects are to be announced on the website, www.goministry.net. Keith has started recording his wife's messages each Thursday with plans to store them in an archive on the website. Everyone is welcome to attend the weekly services 6:30-7:30 p.m. each Thursday.