Mike Tharp: Faith's call inspires thrift store

February 11, 2012 

When most of us think about economic development hereabouts, we recite a familiar rosary: Wal-Mart distribution center ... Castle as a high-speed rail maintenance facility ... green jobs from UC Merced research ... lower fees ... less red tape ... job training.

In Delhi, a young minister is thinking about a bead on that economic rosary that's much more modest and basic:

A thrift store.

Zeke Nelson, 33, is a minister at Church of the Cross in Delhi who last summer set up another church in Livingston, Church of the King. He's also been affiliated with Gateway Community Church in Merced.

In those traditional religious places, he preaches a bilingual gospel in English and Spanish, one following the other in fluent form, because three out of five Delhi residents are Latino.

More about how he acquired his Spanish and his mission later.

Today, the 6-foot-4-inch, lean Seattle native wants to talk entrepreneurship. He calls it the Kingdom Entrepreneurs Ministry. He sees the thrift shop as a natural extension of his religious calling.

It represents a small but meaningful reminder that economic activity in our communities can and should take various forms.

Zeke doesn't want to be a capitalist. He wants to start a thrift store in Delhi by May 1 for spiritual reasons that can transform themselves into jobs. At first, at least one job. "The impact could be eternal," he says.

He's witnessed the success of a similar venture in Fresno, Neighborhood Thrift. It grew from 2,000 square feet when it opened to 20,000 square feet today. Nine full-time employees work there. Some 20 part-timers labor in welfare-to-work or other programs.

Zeke's hazel eyes glow with intensity as he talks about one job applicant at the store. On the form was a question -- what can you bring to the job? "Nothing," the applicant wrote.

But being the Christians they are, the folks in charge found her something to do. Today, she's a full-time employee with salary, benefits and a commitment to make the thrift shop work.

That's Zeke's vision for Delhi. The town of 11,000 or so floats like a lily pad in the Merced County pond. Largely Latino. Poor. Gangs. Dropouts. Meth. There's not even a city hall. It faces the problems that afflict so many communities -- especially unincorporated ones -- in the eight counties of the Central Valley.

Zeke, who majored in theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., honed his language skills in Mexico and Honduras with his wife, Rebecca, who's from Fresno, as missionaries.

They came to Merced six years ago because they had "a vision" of establishing a church in Delhi. After a time at Gateway, they moved to Delhi. Last year, Zeke endured what was not a crisis of faith, but a pause in his ministry. Twenty to 30 people were showing up in Delhi each Sunday, 30 to 40 in Livingston.

He felt stranded. True, his wife and four kids -- 7, 6, 4 and 1 -- anchored his life. And his beliefs remained rooted in the gospels, especially St. Paul, in 2nd Corinthians: "We were under extraordinary pressure, beyond our powers of endurance, so that we gave up all hope even of surviving. In fact we were carrying the sentence of death within our own selves, so that we should be forced to trust not in ourselves but in God, who raises the dead. He did save us from such a death and will save us -- we are relying on him to do so."

Still, he felt his vision dimming. "It seemed there was nothing I could do," the one-time cross-country runner admits.

Then came the idea for the thrift shop. It would be good for Delhi for four reasons: 1)socially, it would give people a place to volunteer, to donate; 2)financially, it would provide at least one person with a job and be an inexpensive place to shop; 3)ecologically, it would recycle used clothing and other items; 4)spiritually, it would be part of the ministry as a chance to do good deeds of value to the community.

The Delhi church already has received many donations of clothing. Zeke reckons it'll take about $20,000 to get the thrift store up and running. It typically takes several months to begin to turn a profit, and he hopes to have the seed money raised by March 1, so they can sign a lease and secure the location.

Since he got the idea last year, his outlook has brightened. "Things have stabilized," he says over a bowl of soup at Evi's restaurant in Livingston. "Things have begun to take a turn for the better. I do feel like I'm doing what I'm meant to do."

As Deidre Kelsey, county supervisor for the district that includes Delhi, puts it: "He's full of the spirit."

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.

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