If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also.
If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor. - John 12:26 (NKJV)
Often churches and individuals look to far off places around the world for meaningful mission experiences and ways to serve. However, opportunities to make a difference exist right in our own cities, communities and neighborhoods.
More than 900,000 Alabamians live in poverty. Alabama is the fourth poorest state in the U.S., and 19.2 percent of Alabamians live below the federal poverty line, a noticeably larger percentage than the national average of 15.5 percent. The federal poverty line is $24,300 for a family of four. (https://alabamapossible.org/2016/06/13/more-than-900000-alabamians-live-in-poverty)
United Methodist Churches and other churches in Etowah County seek to make a difference and are fighting poverty that is just around the corner from where we live, work, play and worship. Here are just a few of the mission and service areas where a difference is being made!
First United Methodist Church of Gadsden and two other downtown churches, First Baptist Church of Gadsden and First Presbyterian Church of Gadsden sought to make a difference in the downtown area in 2011 through cooperative small groups called “Better Together.” During this time, small groups made up of members of these three downtown churches were formed and each small group met together for Bible study, fellowship and created a service opportunity for their group and the churches. One of these groups chose to “adopt” Striplin Elementary School, a Gadsden City School within walking distance of these churches as the focus of their service opportunity and began partnering in a variety of ways with the school. Over the course of the past six years, that partnership has blossomed in a variety of ways. Members of the churches have provided volunteers for numerous special events at the school such as the annual Spring Fling and The Black History “Wax Museum.” In addition, class parties for holidays and special occasions have been sponsored by the churches. The mission opportunities have also included guest readers, reading partners, and tutoring.
For the 2016-2017 school year, Gadsden First UMC, under the leadership of Lay Leader Mark Condra, continued its sponsorship of Striplin Elementary School and began a recognition program for outstanding students and teachers at Striplin Elementary School. Teachers of the Month and the Teacher of the Year for Striplin Elementary School were presented with a letter of congratulations from the church, a gift card for the teacher being honored and an invitation to attend church and be honored at one of the worship services. The United Methodist Women of Gadsden First sponsored refreshments and entertainment at special parties at the end of each of the 9 weeks for the students who had achieved A/B Honor Roll and/or Perfect Attendance.
In January of 2017, Gadsden First UMC partnered with McDonald’s to provide Leadership Certificates to the students and there was a special visit from Ronald McDonald at the party. In addition, Gadsden First UMC Mission Team and the UMW sponsored a Teacher Appreciation Luncheon for May as a “Thank You” for all the teachers at Striplin Elementary School who work to make a difference in the lives of children in our community.
Christ Central UMC offers an outreach ministry once per month that provides food to those in need throughout Etowah County. This ministry is organized and directed by volunteer, Lexie Hembree who actively works with a large team of volunteers and in partnership with the community foodbank of Central Alabama, corporate sponsors and FeedingAmerica.org. Their efforts provide 150 families per month on a first come first serve basis (to those qualifying based on income or food stamp eligibility) with enough food to prepare seven meals. Food items include fresh meats, poultry, eggs, vegetables and produce as well as shelf stable products. Recipes and nutrition tips are also provided.
Planning and ordering the food based on availability, completing required paperwork, oversight of the program and the application process for grants are no small tasks for Hembree, a dedicated task force of volunteers is needed for the necessary labor. The food truck arrives on the third Tuesday of each month and is met by volunteers who unload, sort and prepare the food for the families that will receive the food on Wednesday. Currently four other food pantries are offered by various churches on other days during the month in Etowah County.
Beginning in 2015, Gadsden First UMC began sponsorship of an annual concert for the community that benefits the Etowah County Food Bank. Mark Condra, Lay Leader, Benny McNair, Organist and Russ Waits, Director of Music at Gadsden First UMC are instrumental in planning and organizing the concert each year. Growing each year, this concert features area musicians and choirs from more than a dozen churches of many denominations who come together to share sacred music and hymns on a Sunday afternoon in February or March of each year. Admission to the concert is free with the donation of canned goods or non-perishable food items. Members of Youth Groups of the involved churches assist with collecting the food donations at the doors of the church and loading the waiting truck. Monetary donations are also accepted. The third annual “Hymns for Hunger” was held on March 5, 2017, and was the most successful, collecting a truckload of food and over $3000 in Food Bank Donations.
Currently several churches in Etowah County are participating in providing backpacks of food for children to take home on weekends when they don’t have the advantage of a meal or meals that are provided at their schools. Through the “Brown Bag Buddies” program, Southside UMC, Christ Central UMC and First Baptist Church of Gadsden provide backpacks for children at three separate elementary schools. Gadsden First UMC Sunday School Classes collect food items each month for a similar backpack program called “Backpacks for Hunger” that began in 2011 as a mission project of the Impact Gadsden event. Various groups within the church, including adult Sunday school classes, UMW Circles, the Youth Group and the Children’s Mission Friends group, take turns assembling 140 backpacks each month that go to children through the C.L.I.C.K. (Children Learning in Christ’s Kingdom) after school program at East Gadsden UMC.
Gadsden First UMC’s soup kitchen, “Ladle of Love” is offered each Friday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. People of all ages are welcomed to the fellowship for a generous lunch which consists of a variety of offerings including “meat and three”, “soup and sandwich”, barbecue lunch and more. Each Friday of the month a different “team” of volunteers is in charge of food preparation and serving lunch. The Ladle of Love Ministry is overseen by Pat and Stan Walker, who had a vision for this ministry and opened it in 2010 to filing a gap, since other area soup kitchens are not open on Fridays. Pastors and staff provide a brief devotional and are available to minister to and pray with those who come to the Ladle of Love. All ages are welcomed at the Ladle of Love and many families and children come.
Gadsden First UMC hosts this annual event in late July or early August. Free back to school haircuts are provided for children from Kindergarten through those entering 12th Grade. The event partners with area hairstylists who volunteer their time and skills to cut hair and United Way Agencies that are on hand to display and provide information about their services. For added fun, Kid’s Zumba or Kid’s Yoga or group games are often offered at the event. Children also receive free undergarments and socks and/or school supplies that have been donated by the members of Gadsden First UMC. Since 2009, Good Hair Day has welcomed over 1000 kids for free haircuts.
A comprehensive list of these and other mission and outreach is available at the Etowah County United Way’s 211 office and is also available at the area churches. Hundreds of lives are touched each week through these and other mission and service projects.
Please note, the mission and outreach included in this message represents only a small part of what churches in these Etowah County communities are doing!
What is going on in your community? Share your ideas or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.