Small but mighty: Tiny rural Sharon UMC feeds 400 a month

By Jessica Brodie

SHARON—Sharon United Methodist is a small, rural church in a small, rural town. On a good Sunday, maybe 20 people are in the pews. The whole town itself has 500 people.

But it’s a small church that does huge things for its community, all in the name of Christ. Every month, the church feeds about 400 people every month through three different food ministry programs.

That’s rather astounding, their pastor the Rev. Monica Tilley said, considering just five or six core people, including the pastor, drive the projects. But in the last few years since they started the food ministries, their church has transformed. People have come. Some say you can almost feel the new life breathing into the place.

“A lot of small churches think, ‘We can’t do this!’ But they can,” said Tilley, who has a passion for helping laity in small churches realize they can do great things.

Tilley said all churches need are five committed people, a big vision and prayer, and they can do any ministry they set their minds to.

“Don’t let Satan lie to you and say, ‘I don’t have enough people’—you do,”

Tilley said.

The church member-driven programs include a food bag ministry, a senior luncheon and a community supper, and they’ve put the church on the map, literally.

“When I got here, I discovered many people didn’t even know where the church was,” Tilley said, which in a small town was surprising.

People certainly know where the church is now.

‘This is how we show Christ’s love’

The food bag ministry targets specific families in need, currently about 10 families each month. Once a month, church members create a menu of five full meals—a protein, starch and vegetable—plus breakfast food with fruit and sweets, a staples bag, trash bags, cleaning products and hygiene items. The meals are intended to supplement any shortfalls in the families’ monthly food needs, but if a family has an emergency during the month, the church is there to provide help, too. All types of families are assisted: grandparents raising grandkids, single-parent families, traditional family units and older singles.

“We take pride in giving them full meals, not just bags of ingredient,” Tilley said. “We don’t say, ‘Oh, they’re hungry, that’s good enough.’ If I were hungry, I would want a meal for my family, not just miscellaneous ingredients.”

As she pointed out, Christ didn’t tell the hungry masses to go eat grass from the field. He fed them protein and a starch.

The senior lunch—called the Sharon Senior Social—is a monthly free luncheon for all community seniors, usually attracting 60 to 100 people, many who carpool to the church from all over the town for food, fellowship and entertainment, like bingo or live music. The day the Advocate visited, a Gospel singer was playing piano for the crowd.

And the monthly free community suppers draw upwards of 120 to 130 people, all there to enjoy a spread of 15-25 soup varieties and desserts prepared by members.

“We just love the community,” Tilley said. “This is how we show Christ’s love.”

The church has also fed Salkehatchie Summer Service mission teams and people at The Bridge ministry in Lynwood.

When Tilley first came to pastor the church, however, none of this was happening. She prayed fervently about how God could use the church to make an impact, and He pointed her to community food events.

The congregation seized on the idea and ran with it. And today, it’s alive with a spirit of joyful and genuine helpfulness, humility and servitude that has Tilley applauding their efforts and dreaming about their future.

‘Just makes us feel good’

The volunteers say they feel blessed to be able to help, plus they have fun working together.

Volunteer Hazel Montgomery has been a member her entire adult life and said she feels “so great” when she can help people through her church feeding ministries.

“People are always like, ‘When’s the next one?’” Montgomery said. “We just didn’t realize the need till we got started. One lady we found out gets $15/month on food stamps. That’s for the whole month!

“It just makes us feel good. Everybody wants to help.”

Volunteer Martha Jean Barnette also said the feeling she gets from helping people makes her want to come back to volunteer again and again.

“I quit cooking after my family left home, and I like seeing a lot of people come in and enjoy their meals,” Barnette said. “A lot of people around here have a really hard time in life.”

Harmony Gerhard said volunteering is a way she can participate even when she cannot make every Sunday service.

“These people are so nice, and you know there’s a lot of need,” Gerhard said.

Lesleigh Montgomery, Hazel Montgomery’s daughter-in-law, agreed. Her mother-in-law got her involved, and inspired by the older woman’s commitment to service, she pitches in whenever she can.

“I love the older people in the community, and seeing them come makes me happy,” she said.

The ministries have attracted help from the sister churches on the three-point charge and even non-member volunteers, such as Gina Pratt, who enjoy helping where needed.

“The Bible says ‘to whom much is given, much is required,’ and I feel blessed,” Pratt said. “I think it’s important for everyone in the community to know and help their neighbors.”

And that, Tilley said, is what it’s all about.

Tilley is happy to come talk with other churches across the state and show them how to create similar ministries for their local community. Contact her at [email protected].

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