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Upside Down Challenge: Church embraces community-wide fitness-themed Lenten journey

By Jessica Connor

LAKE WYLIE—This Lenten season, one United Methodist church decided to flip everything they know about the journey on its head —and see what happens for the Kingdom.

Good Samaritan UMC is embracing the Upside Down Challenge, a 40-day project that pastor the Rev. Jason Everson calls a different way of doing Lent.  Instead of personal challenges designed to deepen the self in preparation for the risen Christ, the congregation is taking on health goals. And success will be rewarded through charity: Good Samaritan will donate 25 cents to the charity of the person s choice for every mile the person runs or walks, every 15 minutes the person exercises, every pound the person loses and every day the person is smoke-free (if currently a smoker).

Typically, Lent is very introspective, ¦ but I wanted to take Lent and turn it upside down, make it more outward than inward,  Everson said. It s a way they can take these 40 days and be productive for the Kingdom. 

Good Samaritan has opened up the challenge not only to its whole congregation but to the full Lake Wylie community, as well. Bright yellow Upside Down Challenge  flyers are all over town ”in health clubs, in salons, at schools and more. The flyers invite people to join in the challenge, log their results on the chart and then, at the end, have their progress turned into cash for whatever charity is close to their heart, from the American Cancer Society to Habitat for Humanity.

Member D.J. Frye is participating in three of the four Upside Down tasks: he runs with the church s Run for God group, he weight trains at his local gym and he s losing weight. He has been pleasantly surprised at how far the challenge is reaching.

I was telling the operations manager at our gym about (the challenge), and she already knows about it. Everyone knows about it!  Frye said. It s great. 

He and his wife are passionate about hunger relief, so they want the church to donate their challenge funds to local hunger projects. He is excited his church is doing the challenge, because it s such a natural, easy fit for the health-conscious congregation, plus speaks volumes about the church s efforts to be intentional in sharing Christ throughout the community.

It s easy to talk to people about losing weight, and then an easy foothold to talk to them about other things,  Frye said ”like Christ, and that they are welcome to worship at Good Samaritan.

Good Samaritan member Marietta DiTommaso is also running, exercising and losing weight for the challenge. The day the Advocate visited, she estimated she d earned $9 so far toward her charity of choice, Beds for Kids, a nonprofit that provides bedding sets and beds to children in need.

During Lent I d always given up something, chocolate or desserts, but this fit better ”instead of giving something up, I m actually training my body to be better for life,  DiTommaso said. I m not only helping my soul and spirit, but training my body to be stronger and cleaner. 

Like Frye, DiTommaso said the challenge is something she can mention easily to neighbors, acquaintances and even strangers. She works in a salon and encounters many unchurched people, and she s found herself frequently handing out the yellow Upside Down Challenge flyers and talking about the challenge.

Exercise is a ˜normal activity, and everyone talks about it,  DiTommaso said.

Even kids are joining in, from high schoolers to local Girls on the Run programs, which target girls ages 8 to 13. And for those who are physically unable to participate, Everson said there s a way for them to be involved, too, by sponsoring someone who is doing the challenge.

Himself a runner, Everson said he got the idea from an app on his smartphone, Charity Miles, which tracks your running distance and donates a quarter for every mile to your specified charity.

I thought why can t the church do something like this? Then I realized, the church can do something like this,  Everson said ”and the idea was born.

Everson, too, is participating. He is training for a marathon and estimates he s already earned about $14.50 toward his charity, Clover Area Assistance Center.

The funds for the charities will come from the church s mission budget, which had a surplus last year, and they have decided not to worry about where any funds beyond that will come from; they have no idea how many people are participating in the challenge, and they don t really want to know ”a testament to their belief that God will provide.

We re doing this on faith,  DiTommaso said. It s a challenge for us as a church, and this will as a fact change the community, and change the world. 

This is not the first time Good Samaritan has had to put their faith in God and rely on Him to carry them through. In 2009, the church was at such a low point in both membership and activity that they had to make a tough decision: close their doors or go through a complete transformation.

They were at a point of holy desperation,  Everson said, and no one wanted to close. 

They ended up changing everything about the way they do church ”from their leadership to their worship style to the room setup and décor; the only thing that stayed the same was their name. Their faith was rewarded; in just five years, they went from about 40 people in worship each week to averaging 150 consistently, plus two worship services and a renewed commitment to serving the community for Christ.

This latest effort in the Upside Down Cha
llenge is another way they are turning their world upside down for God, and watching His plan unfold just the way He intends.

For more about the Upside Down Challenge, visit www.goodsamumc.org .

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