She was 57 years old and living in a shed.
The Rev. Jane Stanley had worked all her life in education, teaching at all levels. She then worked for 10 years at Mississippi State University, followed by 10 years at Ole Miss, where she served as administrative assistant to the vice president.
She had loaned her life savings to her oldest son for his business. He lost her money, and much more.
“An unknown benefactor sent me a $3,000 prepaid credit card,” she said. “I could not find out who did it. To this day, I don’t know.”
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This is the way Stanley’s life seems to work at every turn. So she bought the shed and put it in her friend’s yard.
Stanley was in seminary at the time, studying to be a minister. In addition to teaching, she is a lifelong student who has accumulated three advanced degrees, including two doctorates.
God, she said, wanted her to start a church. Where is this church? she wondered. “It is under your feet,” God told her.
“I said, ‘You want my shed?’ So the shed where I was living became our little chapel and I moved into a garage.”
Today, Stanley and her congregation are about to move into their third church, but it will be their first in a new building designed to meet the congregation’s needs. Her ministry is a testament to her belief that those who give receive more in return.
Or, as Stanley puts it, “You can’t outgive God.”
The blessings Stanley has received ripple through the community, touching schools, children and families. Stanley is, above all a teacher.
The ministry she founded is called The Nourishing Place.
George Schloegel, Gulfport’s former mayor and a community leader, said, “I guarantee there is not another religious organization that comes close to what she is doing and the lives she’s touching.”
‘Buy yourself a church’
Stanley’s concept for a church evolved from her years as a teacher. At the start of a school year, she could always tell which students came from supportive families and which ones had early childhood educations. These were the two biggest indicators of success for her students.
Long before she became a minister, she founded Westminster Academy in Gulfport and started a school for dropouts that helped establish alternative schools in the city.
Stories brought her to the ministry. She always loved literature and found the best stories were in the Bible. She wanted her ministry to be rooted in the community.
As her little nondenominational church in the shed grew, Stanley noticed a piece of property in a poor neighborhood north of the tracks in central Gulfport. A dilapidated building shaded by massive oaks sat on the land.
She was by this time married to Max Peck. Peck, who worked at the courthouse, called one day and told her the property was about to be sold for taxes. She called the owner, who wanted $50,000. Stanley didn’t have $50,000.
The owner’s husband called back that evening and told Stanley he could let her have the property for $7,000. She didn’t have $7,000.
Her husband called her the next day from work.
“Hey,” he said, “I picked up the mail today. I got an income tax return of $7,700. Go buy yourself a church.”
Jane Stanley and God had a deal when she got into the ministry. She was not going to ask for money.
There sat the crumbling building, and in walked Tom Brosig, co-founder of Grand Casinos Inc.
Brosig said Grand Casino employees would renovate the building in their spare time if she provided materials. He and others from the Grand completed what is known as the Chapel in the Oaks. The congregation has swelled to 110.
Sunday services are held after breakfast and before lunch. Dinner is served before Bible studies on Tuesday. People can come and eat without staying for services if they want. Food has been a part of the ministry from the start.
“This is the most loving, giving group of people you’ll ever meet in your life,” Stanley said. “It’s old and young, black and white, rich and poor. It’s eclectic. I tell people it’s a church Jesus would like to come to.”
Every day is Christmas
The second church has a screened porch, too. Clothes hang from a makeshift line on the porch. Inside the entrance, canned goods fill a pantry. Two women knocked on the door one recent morning. They were looking for food. Stanley told them to have a look around and take what they needed. It’s all free.
Church members donate their money, and time, to the community. Stanley never passes an offering plate. A porcelain swan with a hollow back sits near the pulpit. People know to put contributions there.
The Nourishing Place also founded and runs educational programs supported by United Way: an after-school tutoring program in five Gulfport elementary schools with high percentages of low-income families and summer reading camps for young children.
Stanley and The Nourishing Place were instrumental in founding pre-kindergarten classes, called PreK4Ward, in Coast schools.
Her church also regularly donates needed supplies to schools. Last week, for example, congregants donated and delivered 400 toothbrushes and toothpaste to two elementary schools.
“They know to call us because we don’t wait for Christmas to help people,” Stanley said. “We do it every day.”
When the ministry outgrew its second church, Stanley bought two lots just down the block on Tennessee Street, ignoring suggestions that The Nourishing Place should move out of the neighborhood.
The new church is almost finished. It has a big chapel, a fully equipped kitchen and a dining room that is even larger than the chapel. Church members buy and cook all the food.
The first service will be held in the Allen Family Chapel, named for generous donors, on Sept. 3, with a dedication planned for Sept. 10.
Don’t expect preaching if you visit. Stanley said she does not preach. She teaches.
“I don’t tell people what to believe or what to do,” she said. “I want to open a window for them to consider what holiness means in their own lives.”
How to help
You can send donations for The Nourishing Place to P.O. Box 7785, Gulfport, MS 39506
About the series:
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.