By Jessica Connor
LANCASTER—All too well, Victoria Webber remembers life on the streets: scavenging garbage cans for a meal. Drugs. Prostitution. Shacking up with someone, anyone, just for a warm place to sleep.
Sexually abused since the age of 4, she was sold at age 10 by her own mother.
I did what I could to survive, Webber said.
Slowly, she came to know Christ, and after she was arrested, she found the strength to turn her life around. Today, she is drug-free and independent, on a mission to spread awareness about street people and the struggles they experience.
But she never found a church that made her feel welcome as she was, scars and all.
That is, until she came to The Bridge at Lynnwood United Methodist Church, Lancaster.
The love is endless, Webber said, eyes brimming with unshed tears while she volunteers at the church, folding and organizing donated clothes. They don t see color. It don t matter if you ve got holey socks and a T-shirt on, if you don t have the right pants or the right shirt. You re still welcome to come. They look at the inside of you.
Started a year ago in March, The Bridge is a Tuesday night food/clothing/worship ministry that reaches out to those in need “ as well as those who simply want a more casual church experience “ through the unconditional, forgiving, all-accepting love of Christ. From the start, The Bridge has been unconventional, experiencing such a sea of ups and downs that volunteers finally threw up their hands and decided not to lead it at all but to trust God to do the leading.
My plan is to stay behind this ministry, not in front, said Betty Kay Hudson, who serves as lay interim pastor at Lynnwood. We cannot control this ministry, cannot plan for it. As soon as we plan for it, it doesn t fit.
Week after week, the church opens its doors in an authentic come-as-you-are way, encouraging everyone “ including those who are struggling from drug abuse, alcoholism, poverty, mental illness and discrimination “ to enter and find peace. True to its name, The Bridge bridges so many areas: socio-economic, racial lines, age.
It s just like a family, Hudson said. It is a safe harbor, a place people can come and feel safe. Everyone is included, accepted, not judged.
Anywhere from 25 to 100 people attend on any given Tuesday. Sometimes, The Bridge attendees outnumber Sunday morning worshippers. The church is seeing a lot of crossover “ Bridge worshippers are deepening their faith walk and becoming full members of the church, while Sunday worshippers are embracing the looser, ultra-casual Tuesday service.
They care about you, make you feel welcome, said Dennis, a new member of Lynnwood who came in through The Bridge.
Another member, George, who came in through The Bridge, credits the ministry for new hope. A retired glazier who has battled mental illness “ manic depression, schizophrenia, paranoia, hearing voices, seeing things “ he said he had lost everything. He had come to Christ and was just beginning to rebuild his life when he learned about The Bridge. Now, he cannot imagine his life without it.
The Lord healed me, George said. Before, I was real paranoid about people. But (at The Bridge) they didn t judge me, criticize me. They cared for me. They were there for me. Everyone here is so nice.
He said the congregation keeps him going.
I look forward to coming here “ want to come more and more and more, he said. There s life here. Where I live, it s dead.
Established in 1947, Lynnwood UMC wasn t always this kind of church. Longtime members recall an older congregation with an average age of 65, all white, all traditional. But one day, church members began to look around at themselves. New members were not joining, and they weren t getting any younger.
The entire church had a meeting, and we wrote down all the things we wanted the church to do, said member Russell Quinton. On top was a soup kitchen.
Quinton and the others got to work, getting organized and spreading the word in the community that they would begin serving a Tuesday night meal. Back then, the Rev. Shannon Murray was pastor, and the ministry started out small. The first night, just three people came, with more than 25 volunteers ready to serve.
But lots of work and five months later, more than 100 received meals “ and more than half of those came to the worship service after the dinner. The church was invigorated, excited about the chance to help.
We felt that s what communities do “ feed the hungry, Quinton said. It s a poor area, and there s a lot of need.
But then things changed.
The devil got involved, said Roger Hayes, a volunteer from Grace Community UMC, Fort Mill, which partners with Lynnwood to help The Bridge.
The church experienced one theft and then another, and their insurance company said they didn t have proper security. Murray moved out of state. They quickly got a replacement in Hudson, but they lost their Tuesday night music.
It went from being an overwhelming success to just overwhelming, Hayes said.
Members floundered for a while: what to do? Then one day, a group was standing in the parking lot outside the church, and a woman came by. She had been attending The Bridge and thanked them profusely for all their support, said she had finally gotten a job. A few minutes later, someone else came by with a similar encouragement.
Those gathered smiled; all of a sudden, their path was clear.
They are a long way from where they need to be (they got their security up to par, but their inadequate kitchen means they can no longer serve meals, though they can provide a food pantry). But they are getting there. In April, a team of workers through the S.C. Conference Older Adults Ministries is coming to help rebuild their kitchen, fix leaks, install exit signs and more. They have $8,000 to do the upgrades, including a $3,500 grant from congregational development. Members are encouraged.
It s a classic case of revival, Hayes said.
It s all coming true, Quinton said. The wishes of the people are all coming true.
Changing lives, one week at a time
Volunteers said the ministry has enriched their lives in so many ways. While being among so many different people “ whether race, age or economic situation “ was awkward at first, they found their footing quickly.
I thought our little church cannot do this, said volunteer Claudia Johnson, who noted she was a skeptic at first. But I was proved wrong.
Now, she comes back week after week to help, secure in the knowledge that this is exactly what God is calling her to do.
Volunteer Claire Quinton said she is grateful for The Bridge as a ministry opportunity.
Being a Christian, we re supposed to help others, and I love it, she said. I absolutely love it.
For her part, Webber “ who came in through The Bridge and now serves as one of the ministry s most committed volunteers “ is grateful for the chance to welcome others in the same way she felt welcomed, as well as to spread more awarenes
s about the struggles of street people and the downtrodden.
If you see me on the street you might think, ˜Oh, one of those street persons, So I spread the word (about The Bridge): Come as you are. This is the real thing. God showed me the light, Webber said.
Kay Vance, Webber s adopted grandmother, attends church at a different denomination on Sundays but loves The Bridge and comes every Tuesday night.
It s not put on, not fake. It s real, Vance said. People care about each other.
The Bridge at Lynnwood UMC is located at 1753 Lynwood Dr., Lancaster. Worship begins at 6:30 p.m., and people begin to gather around 5:30. All are welcome. For more information, call 803-283-7857.