By Jessie Morgan
SPARTANBURG — When the Rev. Brian Arant came to Liberty United Methodist Church a year ago, he heard many stories about the fun and fellowship the congregation once had on the softball field behind the church.
But Arant found it hard to believe that space was once a thriving gathering place.
You couldn t even tell there was a softball field here, Arant said. The grass was three to four feet high in and around the field, and kudzu had completely taken over.
More than 20 years ago, the Liberty UMC field was not only well-maintained, but was home to games and practices for the church s own softball league. It even had a concession stand that raised money for missions and service projects. Sue Owens, Liberty s lay leader, originally started attending and later joined the church because of that softball league. A former physical education teacher, several of her students had told her about the league at their church and convinced her to come play.
But over the years, Owens said, church members became less willing and less interested in playing, and the field became overgrown and unkempt.
It eventually became completely unused, she said.
Mirroring the field s decline, Liberty also experienced a downturn in attendance over the last decade, Arant said.
What was happening to the field seemed to be a metaphor for what was happening to the church itself, he said.
It was a waste of real estate, said Owens, who found it difficult to see the deteriorated field week after week. It was this unused space that just sat there.
Recently, Liberty began asking itself what it could do to reach out and connect with its community. One by one, members began to recall how well the softball field had helped their ministry efforts. And the idea to rejuvenate the field was born.
Last fall, clean-up efforts began. Church members spent hours of hard work through the fall and winter cleaning up the field. Heavy-duty farm equipment was needed to remove full trees now growing there, and an electrician had to repair lights that had not been used in 20 years.
Once the field was usable again, Arant contacted the North Spartanburg Athletic Association and offered the field to local Little League teams.
It was good publicity for the church, Owens said. If you pass the church and there are lots of cars and children, it just lets people know we re here and present in the community.
Arant has seen several new people coming to church since the field revitalization began, but he said most of the growth has come from former members returning to the church.
One of these returning members is Brenda Shearer, who played in the softball league as a teenager. Shearer recalls seeing the field for the first time in years last October.
It was very hard and sad to see, Shearer said. I was crying just to see trees growing in the field and how it had all grown up.
Seeing the field brought back many memories for Shearer, who said she d loved playing there. When she heard Liberty was revitalizing the field, she knew she had to get involved.
It was time for me to get out of the pew and do something, Shearer said. I have a lot of gifts I can contribute to the church, but I never really volunteered or gave myself before.
Now, Owens said there is new energy in the church. Suddenly, youth are present. The excitement is energizing.
Having the kids around and watching them brings people out, Shearer said. It sounds clichÃ©, but is it like a breath of fresh air. It has brought an entirely new spirit, and you can really feel it.
Inspired by the softball field new enthusiasm has affected other Liberty projects, as well, including the construction of a redesigned narthex.
Also, on July 3, Liberty held an Independence Day celebration for the community, featuring fireworks.
A lot of people that don t go to church might believe that this field is just about our church, but it s not. It s about the community coming together, Shearer said.
Owens said the field sends the message Liberty is here for the community: We can provide physical needs through the field, but we are also here to fulfill spiritual needs.
Arant has high hopes for the future of the field. Because of its size, he is hoping to use the outfield for football and soccer with the Upward Bound program, which would mean the field could be used year-round.
Shearer will be working to re-establish a softball league for adults to play on the field, as well. She hopes to have an adult league by next year.
While Arant knows the field has come a long way, he is ready to continue improvements. We have a good start, though our work is not complete, he said. But there is a sense of renewed hope that is wonderful.
Owens agreed. There s great potential here, she said. With God s help it s going to go somewhere.
By Jessie Morgan