A multi-county, Lutheran-based outreach to struggling families will move its headquarters to a more modern, efficient space in southern Bartholomew County by year’s end.
But its mission of providing free donated clothes, appliances, furniture, toys and others items will remain as fixed as its gospel message of Jesus’ love, according to leaders.
Gene Ernst of Columbus, incoming director of the Indiana branch of Orphan Grain Train, recently spoke to a group of about 30 area Lutheran pastors and other ministry leaders about the plans. Nearly all of his comments sprang from the biblical account of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 dealing with clothing, feeding and loving the less fortunate.
“We have been called to be the hands and feet and voice of the Lord in this world,” said Ernst, a retired Lutheran pastor. “We have been called to be like our heavenly father. ... And we can care for the needy.”
Caring for the needy, many of whom are recovering from fires, job loss, divorce or other misfortunes, has been the all-volunteer Orphan Grain Train’s focus, with the help of nearly 40 churches of various denominations in south-central Indiana. Leaders say that their caring work can expand and be done better at a three-acre site near the intersection of County Road 950S and Indiana 11. That’s the former site of the Southern Indiana Millwork, now in North Vernon.
The structure will be refurbished as part of a $675,000 project — including $300,000 in operating expenses — into a 12,500-square-foot building optimizing processing and shipping of donated items. The shipping is significant since Orphan Grain Train also helps people worldwide.
The ministry was born in 1992 when a Nebraska minister wanted to help desperately poor and hungry people in Latvia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The minister envisioned a train traveling the United States, picking up carloads of grain that eventually would be shipped to eastern Europe. The orphan segment of the name came from the scriptural admonition for believers to show God’s love to orphans.
Azalia farmer Gene Wint, who was familiar with the national organization through his home church, St. Peter’s Lutheran in Columbus, said he launched the local outlet when he felt God nudging him to help when a Seymour Orphan Grain Train outlet needed a new headquarters. His farm became the new location in 2002.
That location was never meant to be permanent, ministry leaders said. Because of limited warehouse space, many items are stored in 30 semi-trailers all along the property. Especially in inclement weather, that layout makes it tough for volunteers to easily complete tasks.
Plus, current office space is squeezed into a former hog barn. The refurbished building, with redevelopment done by Force Design, will feature ample office and conference room space for volunteers to comfortably meet with clients. And all storage will be under one roof.
“We’re not exactly starting from scratch,” said Jim Dunn, Orphan Grain Train board member. “But, obviously, there’s still a fair amount of work to do.”
The project cost includes $175,000 for the purchase of the land and existing building. The Rev. Doug Bauman, the ministry’s pastoral advisor, called that “good stewardship.” A three-year capital campaign began in spring to fund all of this work.
A total of $75,000 from that campaign is being used as down payment on the property, which hasn’t yet been purchased, according to ministry treasurer Jerry Brown.
Wint and his board members have envisioned developments and changes like this for some time. The current timing is significant since Wint, 80, is stepping down from his role as volunteer director. He sometimes has worked seven days per week on ministry tasks to meet needs around the block or around the world.
A visitor last week asked him if the ministry will be in good hands with new leader Ernst and its new digs. Wint smiled broadly and offered a slight correction.
“It’s in the Lord’s hands,” he said.