By Jessica Connor
SENECA—One Upstate church has made a deliberate decision to open itself entirely to the will of God and is getting tremendous results.
Ann Hope United Methodist Church, in the Utica community of Seneca, is located in a poverty-stricken neighborhood that has seen more than its share of crime and the lost. The once thriving, family-oriented area has floundered in the face of drugs, alcohol and an unyielding economic recession.
But that hasn t stopped Ann Hope s tiny congregation from stepping up and doing all it can to reach people in Christ.
Two of the church s major efforts “ a free Wednesday night community meal and a Sunday night children s church “ are drawing crowds every week from low-income, multiracial, mostly unemployed neighborhood families. Nearby Dickson Memorial UMC, Townville, has partnered with Ann Hope to help the small congregation provide meals and other outreach.
We have opened ourselves to God, said Ann Hope s pastor, the Rev. Joyce Hendry. This is purely God s work.
Ann Hope member Cheryll Crenshaw calls what has happened at her church supernatural.
We have prayed and sought God about what our mission is to be in the community, how we could help and be the face of God to these people, Crenshaw said, standing before a sea of children all laughing and playing games outside the church. Not too long ago, she noted, Ann Hope had just one child in worship. It s turned out to be a paradigm shift in what you think church is, and He s done some wonderful things.
Dickson Memorial UMC member Carol Foster Mosley said watching Ann Hope completely surrender to the will of God has been downright inspiring.
They go on faith and love alone, Mosley said. They re not afraid to step out and do something different. They show their faith through service, they reach out and they don t judge.
˜The meals come out of nowhere
And it s working. Started in 2008, the Wednesday night meal used to feed 40-60 on average; now upwards of 125 people attend each week for the blessing and free supper, and many stay after for the church service.
If we can help one person believe in Christ, that s our goal, said Ann Hope member Bernice Clark. There are lots of people hurting very badly, and the meals come out of nowhere.
Ann Hope member Marlene Vassey said witnessing the dinners grow has been absolutely amazing.
There is nothing in the church budget “ everything happens from outside help and private donations, yet there is no lack. We don t scrimp. It s just exciting to see, Vassey said. We all have a heart for these people; we don t have to force ourselves to be nice. God s put it into our heart to love them.
The people who come are sometimes dirty, smelly, rude and crude, but God loves them the same as you and me, Crenshaw said. They may just come and eat and leave, but they call this church.
Kids wanted; God answered
But even as the dinners thrived and grew, Hendry and the congregation felt the painful absence of one very important element: children.
We wanted more kids, wanted to grow, Hendry said. So we decided we needed to stop and just listen to God.
Hendry started a Sunday night quiet service, called a Taize service, which involves long periods of silence that are supposed to help members open their hearts to what God wants them to do.
One night after a service, a God thing happened: three kids showed up out of nowhere. When they asked if they could start coming to the service, Ann Hope gave them even more than they asked for. Hendry quickly partnered with a nearby Mennonite church, and now the two hold a just-for-kids children s church every Sunday night at Ann Hope.
Hendry said the ecumenical service not only reaches over boundaries but has breathed fresh new life into the church.
They are the answer to a prayer, Hendry said.
Â ˜Easy to understand
Laughing as they play water balloon volleyball, a cluster of kids from preschool to high school doesn t hold back when pressed to explain why they come week after week.
It s really fun, and you can talk to your friends about church and God, said Emily, age 7.
It teaches us about God, and everyone here is really nice, said Courtney, age 12.
Eleven-year-old Sydney said children s church offers the Word on an accessible level.
I love the preaching; she s really powerful, Sydney said about Hendry. Usually in other churches, you can t understand because they use so many big words for grownups, but here, it s really easy to understand.
Many of the older kids help with the younger ones; a spirit of teamwork and camaraderie permeates the scene. A teenager helps a young boy balance a water balloon on a spoon. Two older kids stand back and encourage a shy younger child to step forward in a friendly game of catch.
Ericka Glick, 18, is one of the Mennonite attendees; her parents helped organize children s church with Hendry. She th
inks the experience has been good for the community and good for them as Christians to understand the church is one big family.
Too often we get caught up in different denominations, she said, one child on her lap and another at her side. But if you believe Jesus Christ is the son and He s the way to eternal life and to God, and if you can help each other and pool your different strengths and weaknesses, you can do a lot of things for God.
Crenshaw brings neighborhood kids to most every Sunday night children s service, and she calls the experience a true blessing.
I can t begin to express how exciting it is to see this, Crenshaw said, recalling one boy bouncing up and down, shouting, I want to go to Ann Hope! I want to go to Ann Hope! Many of these kids have never been to church, so this is their first exposure. And they enjoy it.
Warm welcome is ˜glue
Adults feel much the same, though they cite the warm welcome they get from fellow attendees as the glue that keeps them returning week after week.
Elizabeth Hanley comes most Wednesday nights with her mother and plans to start attending on Sundays, too, after she relocates closer by.
They re not doing it for a show, not for money; just to show people care, Hanley said.
Christine and Floyd Gilbert also come most Wednesday nights and have stayed because of the tangible love and Spirit they receive.
When I first came, I was shy, but they welcomed me in like one big family, Christine Gilbert said.
When I leave I feel better, Floyd Gilbert said. People are just so nice to you.
Deborah Cleveland Gibson comes Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings for much the same reason. A former addict, she s turned her life around and wants others to experience Christ as she does.
I was on crack cocaine for 29 years, smoked it every day, and after I got busted I went to jail and I asked God to come into my life and clean me, Gibson said. Something went out of me and something else came into me.
Two months after her release from jail, she came to Ann Hope for the first time and found love.
They opened their arms and welcomed me, Gibson said, noting the congregation helped her achieve her General Educational Development degree, and when she got married for the first time last year, the church gave her everything she needed to set up house.
Now, Gibson tries to spread God s word in all she does while encouraging others to come to Ann Hope.
I m all the time praising and worshipping, Gibson said. I never did know I could feel this good.
Volunteers say the same. It feels good to reach out, to help, to surrender to God s will.
He makes provision for it, Crenshaw said. I like to say if He brings you to it, He ll see you through it, and that s been true.