80 Years of Refuge: Spartanburg’s Bethlehem Center struggles to stay afloat while helping community

By Jessica Connor

SPARTANBURG – Like a fortress of refuge, the Bethlehem Center has stood sentry in a poor, troubled community in the southwest section of this city.

Graceful shade trees embrace the sturdy concrete building that has welcomed children and adults for the past 80 years – struggling souls who consider the center a sanctuary amid the poverty, drugs and crime that run rampant.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had,” said Paula Wiggs, Bethlehem executive director for the last 12 years.

Pointing toward her office window, Wiggs explains the neighborhood surrounding the center: a median income of $10,375 as of the last census, mostly renters, drug and alcohol addiction, shootings, domestic violence. Some residents are working a minimum wage job but have four or five kids to support. Some have never worked – they smoke crack and support themselves with welfare and disability checks or deal drugs.

They come to the Bethlehem Center seeking a variety of things, but mostly a good, safe place for children and adults to spend time and improve their lives.

Since 1930, the Bethlehem Center has existed to improve conditions in the community and meet the needs of community members. It offers Bible study, line dancing, sewing and crafts, an after-school program, a summer camp and two thrift stores. There is a food pantry every four months, and Narcotics Anonymous groups and medical technician classes use their space for outreach and assistance.

“There’s nothing else in the community except the drug dealers waiting outside,” Wiggs said. “We’re like the safe haven.”

But instead of thriving at 80 years old, they are struggling. Budget expenses are about $26,000 a month, and that’s if the air conditioning doesn’t go out or another emergency doesn’t arise. The week the Advocate visited, the center had to close to get caught up on bills. They are an Advance Special Ministry, so they get some funds from the United Methodist Church, along with private donations, General Board money and grants. But it’s tough.

“We’re like a rubber band about to snap,” Wiggs said. “I’m like a poor mama who juggles things to keep the lights on. It’s been 80 years, but it’s been 80 years of struggle. We’re just trying to stay alive.”

To stay afloat, Wiggs and her staff and board get creative. For the past few years, Wiggs has spent much of her private time selling Designs By Lucinda Pins to benefit the center, which made about $12,000 at the United Methodist Women Quadrennial in St. Louis this spring. (Pin sales have made the center debt-free.)

The center raised $3,000 from a no-show barbecue this summer, and this fall, they’ll get help from some fundraising events: the Oct. 8 Auction for a Cause at the Spartanburg Auditorium, the Nov. 12-13 Holiday Marketplace at St. Paul UMC, and the Dec. 7-10 Designs By Lucinda pin sale at the Bethlehem Center from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. They are also planning a dinner at the Marriott on May 20, 2011.

Still, it’s not enough. Wiggs hopes United Methodists will pray on the matter and consider some extra support.

“If each Methodist gave $1 in our special emphasis month, November, that would be the difference,” she said. “That’s $1 – the cost of a Snickers bar or a soda.”

Sue Owens, UMW liaison to the Bethlehem Center, hopes UMW members will donate an additional dollar that month. She hopes all United Methodists will “step up to the plate” and help.

“Since so few of us are willing to push up our sleeves and step into the trenches ourselves, we need to support those who do work in the missions, such as at the Bethlehem Center, and are the hands and feet,” Owens said. “It’s very tough. And without increasing support, I don’t know (how the center will survive).”

Meanwhile, Wiggs and the rest of the Bethlehem team are doing all they can to get by while serving their community. Closing is not an option – not with all these people around them who are suffering and who need help.

And they know they are making a difference.

Sundra Rice, who today is a Bethlehem Center board member, grew up relying on the center.

“I was raised at the Bethlehem Center – every day after school I’d go there,” Rice said. “My mother was a single parent who worked a lot, and it taught me different things, did so much for me.”

Now the president of her neighborhood association, she credits the center for planting the seed of achievement and service within her.

“It taught me to be a better person,” she said.

Bill Steller, Bethlehem board member who has volunteered there for close to 20 years called the center a beacon of light in the darkness.

“It’s always there: a safe place for children to be. It’s a Christian organization, and it is so desperately needed.”

Owens said the center distributes loaves donated by Panera Bread to the community each week on a first-come, first-served basis.

“For some, that might be the only bread that gets them through a week or until the next paycheck,” she said. “If that community did not have that opportunity within walking distance, it’d be a sad situation.”

The center has also helped people like “Lewis,” a good-natured young man who Wiggs said often “teetered on the edge” with a rough crowd in the neighborhood, but who stood out as someone who might win the war. The Bethlehem Center wouldn’t let Lewis slip through the cracks: they gave him school supplies and encouraged him. He ultimately went to Job Corps, and now he’s on the path to success.

It’s helped people like “Mr. H,” who was an alcoholic and had high blood pressure. He wouldn’t take his blood pressure pills because he wasn’t allowed drink while on them, so he would often wind up in the emergency room, Wiggs said. Bethlehem Center’s administrative assistant befriended him and would take him to Wal-Mart and refill his prescriptions. Mr. H started responding to the extra care, and now he’s achieving, bit-by-bit. He recently got his own apartment.

“We chew him out when he’s not OK, and we tell him he looks OK when he does,” Wiggs said.

The youth, who Wiggs calls “my kids,” are especially important to the Bethlehem team. They work hard to teach children that school is important, and they help them build character and learn to get along. For many, the quickest way to resolve a problem is to hit, so Bethlehem staffers teach that there is another way to get along.

Wiggs remembers a young boy this summer whose toe was sticking out an inch beyond his sneakers. They got him shoes the next day.

The Bethlehem Center logo symbolizes rays of hope: everlasting, vibrant, what the center really could be with proper funding.

And that’s just what Wiggs and the rest of the Bethlehem team are hoping to achieve.

“We’ll get past this, but coupled with the economy, it’s a struggle,” Wiggs said. “But we&rsquo
;ll get past this.”

Steller agrees.

“We struggle, but if the Lord wanted us to close we’d already have closed,” he said. “Just because you think there isn’t a plan doesn’t mean He doesn’t have one.”

For more information about the Bethlehem Center, call 864-582-7158 or visit

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