For the past decade, Pastor June Fothergill led the flock at Ebbert United Methodist Church in Springfield. But when she wasn’t leading services or delivering sermons, she spent time with homeless people and inviting social justice-oriented groups to have offices on the church’s property.
Fothergill retired from the church in July. Springfield community leaders say that throughout her time at the church, she fostered a culture of inclusivity, whether it’s getting to know the unhoused people eating free meals at the church or through her work as an advocate. But retirement doesn’t mean she’ll stop her work with the community, she says, as she’ll work to establish transitional housing for homeless women in Springfield.
“Those are going to be some big shoes to fill,” says Springfield Alliance for Equitable Respect (SAfER) program organizer Johanis Tadeo. SAfER is a program within the Community Alliance of Lane County nonprofit. “She’s a person who listens to the needs of the people and is able to immediately do the work.”
Fothergill moved to Springfield in 2012, having served as a pastor at churches in Wasco, Oregon, Boise, Idaho, and Middleton, Idaho. When she arrived, the Ebbert United Methodist Church’s meal service was already running.
Before the pandemic, meals were distributed in the church’s basement. It meant unhoused people would hang around the church before and after eating, occasionally resulting in neighbor complaints, she says. The church didn’t stop providing meals (and has shifted to a bagged meal system because of COVID-19 precautions), and she and other volunteers would meet with neighbors to talk about their concerns. Those conversations, she adds, not only recruited new volunteers, but some neighbors who had complained would also say they were grateful that the church was providing free meals.
“If we let the community know about what we were doing — the meals and stuff — new people would get involved,” she says. “For Ebbert, they show their faith by doing, by living it out and providing food.”
The meal program, Fothergill says, has been more than just a breakfast or lunch. It’s been a way to offer respite for the unhoused, where they can relax and be with friends, “and just be a person for a while.”
She says she doesn’t serve meals or cook in the kitchen, as volunteers from the church or community do, but uses the time to talk with some of the unhoused folks who eat there. The meals do have a voluntary Bible study, which she says is often a brief verse reading.
The meals have been a way to meet the community’s unhoused, many of whom she notes have various talents. “Folks who are unhoused or in that community have gifts and assets to give,” she says. Reflecting on some of the artists, musicians, writers and others she’s met. “I think they should be valued for that, but they’re not.”
Ebbert United Methodist Church has served as a Springfield Egan Warming Center in the past, but a fire safety inspector determined it was unsafe for people to sleep in without a sprinkler system. The city is covering a $490,000 bill to install the system through a one-time grant from the state and federal government.
While the church has been unable to serve as an Egan Warming Center, the city and Willamalane Park and Recreation District used the Willamalane Memorial Building at 7th and A during the past winter in its place.
Fothergill says that building was spacious as an Egan site, which provided unhoused folks with space to eat, sleep and visit with each other. What’s missing in Springfield, she says, is a day shelter for the homeless, where individuals can relax and be off the streets.
The Springfield Economic Development Agency (SEDA) purchased the Willamalane Memorial Building in 2020. The building’s future is uncertain, but SEDA, which consists of city councilors and the Springfield-representing county commissioner, usually favors economic development projects for its property.
Tadeo of SAfER says Fothergill has helped create a safe space at Ebbert. “She’s done a lot of great things to make sure that folks who feel unseen get seen,” he says. “She’s been a huge advocate — in a way a community organizer. She sees, she hears what the issues are and wants to make sure she creates space.”
Fothergill has been a community figure in Springfield who’s made space on the church’s property for those who have been historically excluded, he says. In addition to the second oldest church in Springfield, the church has two other buildings on its property. And on those properties is where groups, such as Downtown Languages, SAfER, Citywide MECHA and Carry It Forward now have office space.
Before SAfER found its place at a building next door to the church on 6th and C, Tadeo says he was mostly working at CALC’s Whiteaker office, as well as meeting with Springfield community members at their homes. Fothergill facilitated SAfER’s move to the church, giving SAfER office space in the community it serves, he adds.
For several years, Fothergill has attended Springfield City Council meetings to remind officials that homelessness is an issue in the city, and her presence at council meetings has been noticed by Springfield Mayor Sean VanGordon.
“I think about good pastor model behavior and how you work in civic life is a model of behavior that you have to follow what’s going on with civics,” he says. “When you think about her work as a pastor and her work as an advocate of the community, she does it from a place of warmth and moral clarity.”
But Fothergill says she isn’t done with the Springfield community yet.
Since 2016, Fothergill and other volunteers have been working on finding money for Ann’s Heart Shelter, she says. “We kept hearing the needs of the women who came to the meals,” she says. She says she and other volunteers asked unhoused women about what they were experiencing and researched what local services are available right now. “We decided to open a house for unhoused women in Springfield.”
Now that she’s retired, she says she’s going to work on finding money for transitional housing. Springfield City Council considered supporting the venture at a Feb. 14 work session, which would cost $525,000 to either buy or rehabilitate a house, according to meeting materials. The group also asked council to pay for operating costs, about $308,000 per year, but Fothergill says the city doesn’t seem interested in paying for that, so she is grant writing.
If Ann’s Heart were to receive grant money from Lane County, which Fothergill is applying for, and money from the city to purchase property, she says the transitional housing could open by early 2023.
When talking about her time at the Springfield church, Fothergill maintains humility and avoids taking credit. None of it is possible, she says, without the help of others.
“You do it in conjunction with people who care, whether it’s the church or the community of SAfER — and that’s what makes it happen,” she says. “By myself, I could maybe talk to a homeless person and treat them like a human being, which is good. But in terms of getting the city to have more services or in terms of providing food to them on a regular basis, all of those kinds of things, by myself I wouldn’t be able to do.”
Ebbert United Methodist Church is at 532 C Street, Springfield. It has breakfast 8:30 to 10:30 am Mondays, sack lunch distribution 8:30 to 11:30 am Tuesday and Thursday and community meals 5 pm Wednesday and 3 pm Saturday.