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Fighting poverty through friendship

Greenville District launches new Methodist Family Partnering with Families initiative

By Jessica Connor

GREENVILLE—When it comes to helping the least of these,  United Methodists rally to help, collecting canned goods and coats, stuffing backpacks, adopting Christmas families, dropping pennies in buckets—the list goes on.

But while the help is generous, it s often abstract and disconnected; many of those who help neighbors in poverty never actually lay eyes on the people they help. They put items in a bin or buy presents for a collection box; often, no other interaction occurs.

“There’s this gap,”  said the Rev. Jerry Hill, pastor of Dunean United Methodist Church, Greenville, and minister of social ministries and mission outreach at Buncombe Street UMC. Churches are often nestled in the suburbs, he said, and members can spend their lives giving and giving without ever becoming friends with — let alone meeting — a poor person.

The Greenville District wants to change that.

The Greenville District is embracing a new mission effort to truly connect with neighbors in poverty. Called the Methodist Family Partnering With Families Initiative, the project aims to focus local UMCs on the needs of families in poverty, seeking to inspire, educate and structure church ministry with, not to, these families to be more effective. A kickoff event will be Oct. 26.

The goal is for each of the 70 UMCs in the Greenville District to form a relationship with a family in poverty.

For it is in those relationships that real good can be done, organizers of the initiative said. On the surface, these families represent alarming statistics. But up close and personal, they are real people who need more than money and clothing, Hill said. They also need mentoring, alliance, friendship and mutual goal-setting. They need the relationship that comes from a church in true partnership with them.

Stemming from the S.C. Conference s participation in the global Pan-Methodist Campaign for Children in Poverty, the District Connectional Ministries Outreach and Advocacy committees crafted the initiative, and the rest of the Greenville District signed on to help. The Rev. Mary Teasley, Greenville District superintendent, said district churches were inspired by their success with Stop Hunger Now meal-packing efforts the past year, as well as similar outreach ministries, and wanted to take things to the next level.

We felt it was time to move from focusing on acts of mercy to addressing issues of justice, especially the systemic issue of poverty,  Teasley said.  To think of channeling those resources and that energy into our communities, transforming the world one family at a time, is a little scary, but we feel it is the next faithful step that God is calling us to take. 

The Rev. Christine Matthews, pastor of Salem UMC, is leading the initiative along with Hill and others with the Outreach and Advocacy committees.

Part of the partnership is assisting them when assistance is needed. But it s not just that. It goes deeper than that,  Matthews said. We do have a lot of churches doing wonderful ministries like food pantries and backpack programs, and I don t in any way want to diminish what is going on in that way, but we want to deepen that “ not just giving assistance but building a relationship. 

Matthews said the word partner  is important because the families are working, too. It s not just us as a church helping them, but working alongside them,  she said.

Like the homeless mother with four children Hill has recently befriended.

She s smart “ she used the word ˜audacity in conversation with me “ and said, ˜I have goals, I want to start a business, but I ve just been surviving these last seven years,  Hill said, noting his talk with the mother was enlightening. We have to focus people on relationships and involvement rather than giving stuff. Sometimes stuff is definitely needed; I gave a food card and gas card to this mom. But we re going to get back together with this mom and figure out the next step. 

That next step is particularly important given the number of families who live in poverty in South Carolina. According to the Kids Count Data Center, 26 percent of S.C. children live in poverty, 13 percent live in high poverty areas, and 34 percent live in homes where the parents lack consistent full-time employment.

What many of us don t know is that many families in our community struggle to keep the rent paid and food on the table, to have decent clothes for the kids or even a stable place to stay,  Hill said. More and more of our families are struggling with poverty and all its effects. 

When I think about the impact that this partnership can have, it gives me goose bumps,  Matthews said.

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