Charleston churches partner for huge downtown outreach

By Jessica Brodie

CHARLESTON—Over and over, the Rev. Nathan Smalls prayed the same prayer: Lord, please send us some food and some helpers for the people in our community.

The small church he pastors, Mount Carmel United Methodist, is in a downtown area that is both highly developed and highly underserved, and many neighbors rely on the small food pantry, clothing closet, soup kitchen and other outreach activities the church offers.

But with limited numbers in his congregation, and many of them older adults who have moved from the area, Mount Carmel simply didn’t have enough people to provide all the help the community needed. In his heart, Smalls worried he’d have no choice but to scale back and eventually discontinue their efforts.

“I didn’t tell anyone I was praying, but I spent quite bit of time prayer and fasting,” Smalls said. “I was heartbroken.”

Then one day, he showed up to the church and discovered their refrigerator and blessing boxes were filled with food.

Smalls was astounded—and he had no idea who was responsible.

“I’d been only one doing this, and three times I went down there to find fresh food in there!” he said. “I never could catch them.”

Finally one day he discovered his mystery angels in the act. He found out they were a group of women from the large nondenominational Coastal Community Church located in West Ashley, about 10 miles away. The women were White, Smalls said, and Mount Carmel’s membership is totally African American.

And when he spoke with them, he instantly knew: His prayers had been answered.

It turns out the women had felt the Lord lead them to Mount Carmel with a surplus of food they had been distributing to another nearby food ministry. Further, they said, their pastor had been praying about starting an outreach ministry with another church downtown. Would Smalls consider partnering with them?

“I said twist my arm,” Smalls recalled, laughing. “Yes!”

Now, every Thursday Coastal Community brings a sizable supply of food to Mount Carmel—fresh produce, fresh meats, as well as a host of nonperishable items—and restocks the blessing box and refrigerator at the church.

Then, on the first Saturday of every month, they come to Mount Carmel with a group of about 50 people, towing grills, food, clothing, blankets, ice cream, snow cone machines, jump castles and more to the church for a big community outreach day. Droves of people come by for giveaways and fellowship, all entirely free.

Smalls said they come in, cook all the food, serve, clean up and take the trash with them as they depart.

“When they’re gone, you wouldn’t even know they were there—it’s all cleaned up. They even bought all the items for our back-to-school giveaway.”

Coastal Community’s outreach pastor, Chris Jones, calls the Saturday crew their “tailgating team,” and he said it is a blessing and an honor for them to serve with Mount Carmel in this way.

“It’s all about coming together to be the church together and show the love of Christ in that community,” Jones said.

As is the case in so many large cities, Jones said, the people who live near Mount Carmel experience great need on so many levels.

Meeting those needs is what Coastal’s partnership with Mount Carmel strives to do, Jones said.

“It’s meeting the physical needs of the people, yes, but these people also need to know the love of Christ.”

Smalls agrees. He said Coastal Community also provides biblical tracts, and they witness about Jesus to the community, encouraging neighbors to come to the church on Sunday. About six people have started attending the church who hadn’t come before.

Smalls said he’s also struck by the fact that God clearly put both churches together—one Black, one predominantly White.

“This is poignant,” Smalls said. “We have crossed racial lines within two churches in serving a community which consists of underserved people of all races. For me this speaks volumes to the true definition of being ecumenical.”

Coastal also has a bed ministry with several carpenters in the church, and if Mount Carmel learns about anyone in need of a bed, they build it, deliver it, set it up and bring a mattress, all at no charge.

“It almost sounds corny, but I thank these people so much because it’s a prayer answered,” Smalls said. “There’s no way they could have known our need other than God revealed it to them. Here I was, heartbroken because we could not continue to do what we were doing. … Now here’s the Coastal Church coming each week, bringing all the food, and we don’t have to buy anything. You just cannot rationalize this.

“It’s definitely a move from God.”

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