Reaching up, reaching out
McCormick’s new relationship with area youth transforming lives, church
By Jessica Brodie
McCORMICK—A childless church filled mainly with snowbird retirees is finding new meaning through strategic outreach with local schools—particularly one special school for at-risk teens. And now, its members have a second set of “grandkids” to love and a revitalized, outward-focused identity that is transforming the way they do ministry.
Two years ago, McCormick United Methodist Church was thriving inwardly, with active members who live mostly in the well-to-do lakefront recreational community of Savannah Lakes Village, off Lake Thurmond. But, said their pastor the Rev. Paul Wood, no children, no teens, no young families and little interaction with the surrounding lower-income rural community.
In 2013, the church decided to go through a long-range planning process with the help of the Rev. Jim Arant, conference congregational specialist, to help them go in a new direction and discover God’s will for their church.
“They came up with a mission statement of ‘reaching up, reaching out.’ They want to continue to reach up to God but also want to reach out to the community,” Arant explained.
Overnight, Arant said, the church experienced a flurry of community-focused activity, and most significantly, deliberate relationship with the area’s three public schools and John de la Howe School, a state-supported residential school for troubled and struggling middle and high schoolers. Church members spend one-on-one time with the kids, teaching them golf and fishing, hosting dinners and more. They recently started a backpack food ministry. The ideas are endless.
“It’s energizing—it transformed them!” Arant said.
Their pastor agreed. “These are retirees who don't have contact with their grandchildren close by, so here these older adults are not only enjoying being with young people, but also serving the young people,” Wood said, noting these are congregation-driven ministries—he didn’t launch any of them.
And the outreach is much-needed, Wood said. There is enormous poverty in the area, so high that more than 80 percent of students in schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In a short time, McCormick has been able to help in a big way, which has spurred them on to do even more.
From books to backpacks of food
Outreach to local public schools started thanks to the Million Book Effort, the 2014 conference-wide initiative to get brand-new books directly into the hands of the kids who need them.
The congregation got a foretaste of what it would be like to have a church filled with children a couple years ago, when the nearby elementary school chose McCormick UMC as its evacuation shelter.
“Four hundred children marched into this church one day, and about half were in the sanctuary,” Wood said. “It was amazing to see a sanctuary filled with children!”
The experience opened the church’s eyes to full awareness of the local children. Then, as the Million Book Effort developed, members were infused with zeal to buy books for them. They were able to raise enough money to present the low-income elementary school with nearly 2,000 books.
The relationship grew from there, and when McCormick members realized another county had been quietly providing “their” schools with supplemental meal assistance through a backpack food program, they became determined to do their own backpack ministry.
Teaming up with other churches in the community, McCormick spearheaded an ecumenical backpack ministry that launched in September to elementary, middle and high school children.
Proving naysayers wrong
But it has been their outreach to John de la Howe that has been especially rewarding, many say.
John de la Howe is the second-oldest institution in the Carolinas, but in recent years, Wood said, controversies about oversight and staff turnover have swelled. State legislators were considering morphing the school into the Department of Juvenile Justice, he said.
“But these kids are not criminals,” Wood said. While some of the youth have been expelled from other schools for minor offenses, they have not been convicted of crimes, and the perception of the school and its students motivated the church to partner with the school and do their part to help, not hinder the kids.
As Wood said, “People frown about De La Howe and see the students as being threats to their wellbeing, but that inspires us to say, ‘Let’s do what we can to help these kids and prove to the naysayers these kids are worthy.’”
The partnership soon turned into a blessing for both the kids and the congregation.
On Palm Sunday, McCormick UMC hosted “John de la Howe Sunday,” a day for the students and staff to come worship, sing for the congregation and then enjoy a special dinner in McCormick’s fellowship hall. They sat pairs of students with pairs of church members, who were tasked to engage the kids in conversation.
“In one conversation, a man said to a boy, ‘Do you like to go fishing?’ The boy said, ‘Well, I’ve never been fishing before,’” Wood said.
The revelation came as a shock to the members, as many had settled in the community so they could enjoy fishing Lake Thurmond and the mass of ponds and rivers in the area. The idea that a teen could be living there and not know the joy of casting a line was inconceivable.
No more smirks
Propelled by a desire to mentor young fishermen and women, McCormick immediately launched a fishing ministry for the John de la Howe students.
Dan Tutt is one of the members who organized the fishing ministry. His heart condition makes being physically active a challenge, so he did what he could do: he picked up the phone and called his neighbors at Savannah Lakes Village.
“They didn't have any equipment,” Tutt explained. “Here I am, 70 years old and nothing to do, and then here you go, something to do. So I contacted the people that live in the development and said, ‘Hey, all you guys who like fishing!’ I got 25 units of rods, reels, tackle, even money so we could buy stuff we needed.”
Once equipped, other members organized classes to teach the kids the basics: casting, tying knots, hooking a worm or lure, etc.
Jerry Nettles, who also coordinated the ministry, spent much hands-on time with the youth, teaching them how to put their lessons into practice.
“It was great seeing the kids learn how to cast, bait a hook, catch the fish, and the smiles on their faces were just fantastic,” Nettles said. “I enjoyed it more than just fishing myself—just wonderful to see kids learn how to do those things and enjoy the outdoors. The kids at De La Howe are really good kids. They probably were in trouble before, but when they leave, they’re going to be super citizens.”
Tutt said the experience has been heartwarming, and he was happy he was able to get out a couple of times to see their work come to fruition.
“The beauty of it is here’s these kids from somewhat troubled backgrounds and the only thing they did was smirk, and now they’re laughing and having fun,” Tutt said.
While the fishing ministry is on pause now for the off-season, Wood said they plan to start back up again in the spring.
Definition of success
Fishing isn’t the only way they mentor De La Howe youth. Another McCormick member was once a golf coach, and many members are avid golfers. Last fall, they began to teach interested kids how to play golf, which culminated with going to a course in Greenwood to play for real. This fall, they’ll resume with more classes.
In the spring, they hope to plan another John de la Howe Sunday, plus continue the fishing ministry, and they continue to look for new ways to be in relationship with the youth, both at De La Howe and at the three public schools.
Wood said school staffers have even started bringing some of the kids to worship on occasion.
All in all, the new outreach gives McCormick members an opportunity to be in touch with kids who live right in the area and who vastly need stable adult attention.
“Reaching out is a very important part of ministry, and we have a unique privilege to reach out to children who are right here in the area,” Wood said.
Arant agreed. “Ultimately, when a congregational specialist goes in, we don’t have a plan, we have a process: to help them discover what is God’s will for their church. It’s in discovering that will that churches are transformed,” Arant said. “Our definition of success is understanding God’s will and doing that will.”
At McCormick, both pastor and church members are confident they now know God’s will for their congregation lies in reaching up and reaching out.
As Arant said: success.