TOPEKA, Kan — John and Cindy Martin sat at a table in the small kitchen of Sullivan Chapel Methodist Church last week, faced with the stark possibility that the once-thriving congregation may be on its last legs.
“Right now, there’s three of us coming here,” said Cindy, 54. “My husband, his son and me.”
The church, which is part of the Oklahoma Indian Methodist Conference, is located in an out-of-the-way North Topeka location.
The church doesn’t have a full-time pastor — John is the preacher most Sundays — and barely has enough income in the form of gifts and offerings to keep the doors open and the lights turned on.
The church’s main claim to fame was its monthly Indian taco sales, which were held the first Friday of each month until a year ago. People from across town would circle the date on their calendar and head to the northside church to purchase the items.
The taco sales generated about $500 each month, with every penny going back into the church.
“It paid for most of our utilities — our lights and gas,” Cindy said.
But the taco sales ended abruptly in October 2012 when a Kansas Department of Health and Environment employee stopped by after having seen a yard sign directing passers-by to the church.
The KDHE employee found out the church was selling Indian tacos on a monthly basis and informed the congregation’s leaders that, in so doing, they were violating state law.
The state, Cindy said, shut down the church’s sales until certain conditions were met.
Church members were informed they needed new sinks that would be deep enough to submerge the largest pots and pans it used for the food preparation.
Three basins — instead of two, which the church had at present — also would be needed: one for dishwashing, one for drying and one for disinfecting.
Additionally, if the monthly sales were to continue, the church would need to get a license from the state that would run around $300. The church also would have to present a copy of a contract with a pest-control company.
“They did say we didn’t have to change a few of the floor tiles that were broken or missing, “ John said. “The other repairs would run us $1,000 to $3,000.”
At 74, John said he doesn’t want to put other people’s money into what could be a sinking ship.
“We have some friends who’ve offered to help,” John said. “I told them to keep their money in their pockets until we see what’s going on.”
He said people from area United Methodist churches have sent in financial gifts after hearing about Sullivan Chapel losing its Indian taco sales.
“If it wasn’t for those gifts,” he said, “we wouldn’t be here today.”
The biggest challenge for the congregation right now is finding people to come to the services. The church, Martin said, was formed for Indians from various tribes — particularly Potawatomis — who moved to Topeka back in the 1960s.
But now, many of the Indians have moved back to the reservation, while others have grown old and died. Others simply stopped coming to the church.
With only three people coming most Sundays, the church’s budget picture looks bleak. Yet Martin insists he isn’t about to throw in the towel. “There’s always a chance,” he said, “especially if we can get some more people to start coming here.”