By Jessie Morgan
SUMTER—Seven years ago, Wes Conner was looking for a way to bring together a community of faith in the Sumter area and bridge the gap between Christian denominations.
Conner, the youth director at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, had participated in the S.C. Conference s Salkehatchie Summer Service Camp for years. He had a vision of a similar project, but localized in Sumter with volunteers from area churches of all denominations.
With this vision, Sumter Area Missions was born. The service project, known as SAM, takes place one week every summer and involves teams of mostly youth volunteers doing repairs on houses in need. Conner said the focus is to make sure houses are dry, safe and secure, and repairs range from roofing and flooring to putting in new windows or doors.
Though it grew from a strong vision, SAM started small. For the first few years, just Aldersgate UMC and one or two other churches worked on two or three houses. Then two years ago, United Ministries of Sumter County, an extension crisis ministry of area churches, worked with Aldersgate to officially take over leadership of SAM.
Rachel Johnston, a member of Aldersgate and employee of United Ministries, said that the transition of SAM from an Aldersgate mission to a United Ministries mission has made all the difference for the success of the project.
It s amazing to see how it has been able to grow, Johnston said.
And grown it has. SAM expanded to repair five houses last year and tripled that number this year, with 15 houses repaired June 5-10.
Conner has been impressed by the growth in participation, as well, which included 12 churches and more than 200 volunteers this year.
Aldersgate s pastor, Dr. Webb Belangia, just completed his first year at the church and has been amazed by his inaugural SAM experience.
To see all these denominations and a broad spectrum of people and socio-economic representation, it seemed like the city of Sumter all came together, Belangia said.
Belangia worked on a team that put in a septic tank and raised a room in a house, replacing the floor and ceiling. He said that in addition to meeting people of different denominations, he enjoyed seeing a different side of his own church members during the week.
Seeing people working hard and getting dirty, you get to know them in a different way than when they re dressed up on Sundays, Belangia said.
Like Salkehatchie, SAM focuses on youth participation, with youth comprising about 80 percent of the volunteers. Belangia said the youth bring energy, vision and excitement to the project.
It gives me hope for tomorrow, to see a group of youth like this with a love for God and compassion for their brothers and sisters, Belangia said. They have a real desire to let people know about the love of Jesus Christ.
In addition to unprecedented growth, this year s SAM included a unique project that went beyond normal goals and time constraints of a typical SAM work site. In November, the Red Cross contacted United Ministries about the Hastie family, who had experienced a grease fire in their kitchen, burning down much of their house. Only a month before the fire, the family had dropped their homeowner s insurance to reduce expenses.
Conner said that after meeting with the family, he wanted SAM to rebuild the house, even though that task would take more time and expertise than anything SAM had attempted before.
It was just put in my heart that this was the direction we needed to go, Conner said. They were wonderful people, and they had such compassion and love for God.
Marcus Johnston, a member of Aldersgate and a leader in organizing support to rebuild the Hastie house, remembered how overwhelming the damage looked at first.
We thought there was no way we could manage this, he said, But God gives you strength, and things that seem impossible become possible.
The work on the Hastie house started the week of SAM by knocking out walls and clearing everything from the house. In four and a half days, 13 tons of debris and materials were removed from the house. During this grueling process, most of the volunteers were youth.
Then, SAM workers held two blitz build days at the Hastie house in July and August, rebuilding interior walls and a roof.
SAM still has a long way to go on the Hastie house, but Conner hopes to have the family back in their home in six to eight months.
Marcus Johnston said the home already looks much better than in June, and the family has had a positive reaction to the effort.
Just from what we ve done so far, I could see Mr. Hastie looking at it with new hope, which meant so much to us, Johnston said.
That reaction on people s faces is one of the most fulfilling parts of SAM, he said: Just seeing their renewed spirits makes such a difference in your own life.
From here, Conner hopes SAM will see continued growth. But he believes instead of increasing the number of houses repaired in one week, the project may morph into a multi-week mission.
We want to maintain that spiritual growth and connection that we have achieved with SAM, Conner said. We don t want to spread ourselves out more than this in one week, or we might lose that.
To Rachel Johnston, the sense of unity SAM brings will ensure its continued success. To see people come together as Christians, not denominations, gives a glimpse of what the church should be and what we can accomplish, she said.
Belangia said SAM s growth is evidence that people see the value of that unity. Still, just a fraction of the churches in Sumter are represented. Getting word to people in other denominations can be difficult, so that is something we can continue to work on.
Belangia is confident that SAM will continue to serve more people in the Sumter community.
It is a concrete example of people answering the call to serve Christ, he said.