First Circles site in SC

Buncombe Street UMC serves inaugural site for nationwide poverty-assistance network

By Jessica Brodie

Circles, a nationwide campaign that teams low-income families with community allies to carve a long-term pathway out of poverty, has come to the Palmetto State thanks to the efforts of one United Methodist church.

Buncombe Street UMC, Greenville, is serving as the inaugural site for Circles of Greenville County, the first Circles site in South Carolina and the newest of more than 70 Circles networks across the United States and Canada. The site launched Sept. 16, culminating years of research and discernment about how to best address the vast poverty issues in Greenville County.

“We are so excited,” said the Rev. Jerry Hill, missions and outreach minister at Buncombe Street, who has been working alongside others in the community for three years to lay the groundwork for the Circles network. “A huge proportion of people in South Carolina are in poverty, almost 28 percent, and you can say what you want about adults, but the kids didn't sign up for that. They just got born. This thing works, it works all over the United States and in Canada, and it’s going to work here.”

‘Real relationship’

SHARE Community Action Partnership is the lead nonprofit organization for Circles of Greenville County, with Buncombe Street as the host site and on the steering committee. Tommy Sinclair, Missions and Outreach Committee chair for the church, is also on the SHARE Advisory Board and, with Hill, is one of a team of people who has been working to see the network come to fruition in the Upstate.

Sinclair called Circles a chance for “real, extended relationship” between haves and have-nots.

“It’s really extending the network of the middle- and upper-income community to someone in poverty,” Sinclair explained. “One of key reasons Buncombe Street chose this is because it offered opportunities for the entire congregation to be able to serve in a relationship with someone in need. It’s relational commitment, not just transactional, not just one or two financial donations to someone.”

After all, Sinclair said, with 27,000 children living in poverty in the Greenville area, there is much need—and he knows Circles only scratches the surface. But as he said, it’s a step in the right direction, and he and others are eager to see what happens next.

Allies and leaders

Circles uses a relational model to inspire and equip families and communities to resolve poverty and thrive. It identifies “leaders” (a person in a low-income family who will lead their family out of poverty) and teams them up with “allies” (higher-income community members who will come alongside them for 18 months). The “leaders” must be living on 150 percent or less of the federal poverty guidelines; in Greenville, families of four who make less than $24,036 are eligible. They cannot currently be in a crisis situation, such as domestic violence, homelessness or active addiction (they are steered to other agencies for help if that is the case), and they need to have some measure of stability already in place, such as a job and reliable transportation.

Leaders and allies go through intensive separate training, and then the process begins.

Two to three allies are partnered with one leader, and they all meet together at the site (Buncombe Street) once a week. During the training, the leader will have already developed a list of goals for their family for the next 18 months, and at each weekly meeting, the allies review the plan and strategize with the leader about how to overcome obstacles and achieve success.

At the end of their time together, the hope is that the leaders will be on the path to a bright future.

Sinclair said Buncombe Street hopes to be able to host two training and pairing cycles a year, every six months or so pairing 20 leaders and 40-60 allies. The Circles steering committee is also working to identify and establish other Circles sites throughout the community.

“It feels great not only to have it embraced by members of the congregation but by the community,” Sinclair said. “I know what it’s meant to me, but it’s also excited and encouraged so many people.

Allies comprise Buncombe Street members along with others in the community.

‘Powerful way to share the Gospel’

Hill said the launch Sept. 16 was a great success. Currently, the leaders all happen to be single moms, and being able to see them gather at Buncombe Street with their children and the allies and share their stories was inspiring and powerful.

“They are so excited about this program,” Hill said. “They understand how it’s going to work, and they’re ready to put in the work to change the lives of themselves and their families.”

Hill said that while Circles is not a religious program, it is certainly a powerful way to share the Gospel.

“We feel following God is all about helping each other and helping people, particularly those who are lower income,” Hill said. “We are sharing our faith by showing up each week and sharing. To me, that's the most effective way of sharing the Gospel.”

For too long, Hill said, the church has been doing ministry simply by gathering people together and giving stuff away, but that is counterproductive, he said.

“That’s just dispersing stuff—it inoculates people from real ministry,” Hill said. “Real ministry is about relationships. It’s about showing up.”

Hill said their goal in 10 years is to get 3,000 children out of poverty, and he knows through Circles and through the loving, Christ-filled hearts of the volunteers, it can work.

Like Buncombe Street, many UMCs across the nation are host sites for Circles, and the global church supports their efforts by enabling donations through an Advance fund through the General Board of Global Ministries.

The Rev. Clayton Childers, director of development and conference relations for the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, said Circles has proven to be effective in other areas around the country, and it is exciting to see it taking root in South Carolina.

“It works because it is grounded in relationship, people coming alongside, walking alongside people working to better their lives,” Childers said. “It is so essential in giving support that we preserve dignity; this model excels at that.”

Hill said Buncombe Street is taking a big risk in counting on the intense time and soul commitment it takes to implement change.

“But I think when you challenge people, a lot of people will rise to the challenge. Some will rise up, some eventually rise up, some never rise up, but if you don't challenge them, none of them will rise up,” Hill said. “(Circles) is the missing piece that helps a person be successful and not create the same mistakes they’ve made in the past.”

For more on Circles, visit For more on Buncombe Street’s efforts, visit To talk with Sinclair about helping the Greenville effort or about starting a similar network in another community, contact him at [email protected] or 864-630-1249.

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