By Jessica Brodie
WINNSBORO—Again and again, Jane Hinnant felt the tug on her heart.
She knew it was God, knew He wanted her to step up and do something to help, but the why-not reasons piled on.
“I just kept shoving it back,” said Hinnant, longtime member of First United Methodist Church in the heart of Fairfield County. She knew about the poverty issues in her community, saw the needs in the two square miles surrounding her church, but she didn’t think it was for her to address.
God had other plans.
The tug became an outright prod, and Hinnant met with her pastor, which led to gathering a few friends for a brainstorming lunch at her home. A year and a half later, God’s will is now being done through Hinnant and other members of First in what they call the Blessing Box Ministry.
On the first Thursday of every month, First gives out boxes of basic non-food items to its neighbors in need, from cleaning supplies and paper products to hygiene items. When they started in March, they gave out 25 boxes, but they’d doubled it to 50 six months later. They plan to increase that number again soon.
The Rev. Julie Belman, First’s pastor, said the need is great. Particularly since the V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Plant abruptly closed this summer and left thousands out of work, money is tight.
“We started with the simple idea of ‘let’s love our neighbors; how can we love them better?’” Belman said. Initially, they envisioned a feeding project, but they discovered there were lots of other groups helping with food, so they began to discern what needs were not being met.
“We realized food stamps don’t cover paper towels, laundry soap, deodorant, diapers, feminine products—and this stuff is expensive!” Belman said.
Church members donate items for the boxes, such as laundry and dishwashing detergent, all-purpose cleaner, sponges, trash bags, paper towels, toilet and facial tissue, deodorant, soap and toothpaste. They give a Bible to all first-timers. Other community partners help with items, funds and volunteers, including First Church of the Nazarene, Salem Presbyterian, Word Spirit and Faith Christian Fellowship and First Baptist. Community resource officers from the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office pitch in to help.
“It is just such a blessing,” Hinnant said—both to those doing the serving and those being served.
Just looking outside First UMC gives evidence of the need. People line up beginning at 5 a.m. outside the church. Administrative assistant Julie Barfield arrives early to put out chairs for the crowd, many of whom are older people with health issues. Box distribution begins at 8:30 a.m. and is first-come, first-served.
The day the Advocate visited, parking was scarce, and scores of people were huddled beneath the church overhang, hoodies jammed over their ears for warmth. That day, they ran out of boxes before everyone was served.
“Today so far we’ve turned away 10,” Barfield said, biting her lip as she surveyed the crowd—neighbors and friends, the churched and unchurched, waiting hours for items purchased at the local dollar store.
She’s eager to see the ministry increase its numbers again so everyone can be served.
“The need is so great,” Barfield said. “This is a very low-income area, a rural area, and the people we’re serving are relying on this assistance. They’re very appreciative.”
Those helped also get a “luxury item” on occasion: this month, it was a plush queen-sized blanket, soft and cozy for the winter months. Many of those served don’t have heat and need help staying warm. In the summer, they gave out box fans. An extras box is available, too, filled with miscellaneous items like socks or lotion.
Brenda Watkins, waiting in line outside the church to receive her box, said she feels extremely blessed that First is doing this to help its neighbors.
“I come every month,” Watkins said as she fills out her intake form on a clipboard. “I need the help, and it helps a lot.”
No rules, no judgment
The church doesn’t ask for much information from those served. As Belman said, it’s a judge-free zone.
“No rules, no judgment, no qualifiers other than they must live in Fairfield County,” she said.
When the ministry started, Belman said First had much discussion about how they can be sure the people served are “deserving” of a box.
“But as a church, we need to remember we’re all receiving grace, and we’re not deserving,” Belman said. “We hope we can bless anyone who walks through that door like we’ve been blessed.”
That concept resonates strongly with Tricia Drake, who retired after teaching hearing impaired children for many years. Drake said she was skeptical about helping at first and struggled with the question of whether those they helped were truly in need or just taking advantage of the church.
“But through volunteering, God changed my heart,” Drake said. “We can’t be judgmental.”
‘A warm, fuzzy feeling’
Inside the church, the mood is light, and one of the women receiving help giggles as she picks through the extras box, selecting her item. She said she needs socks, then grins as she pulls out a pair.
“Ooh, navy and white stripes! They’ll look good!” she exclaims, and Belman smiles, helps the woman gather her items.
“Have a blessed day,” the pastor calls, and the woman is out the door as another client takes her place.
First member and volunteer Bobbie Dove said it’s a lot of work, but it’s a joy and a blessing as much to the volunteers as to those they serve.
“I feel we need to share with those who have less than we do,” Dove said. “There’s great need here, and God commanded us to. He really did. It sort of gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling to help like this.”
First member Martha Martin didn’t think she’d become a volunteer, but now she is passionate about helping. She handwrites a personal note in every Bible—a large-print New International Version—and prays over each one.
“It’s a way to show people God loves them through us,” Martin said. “I want people to know we really care about them and really want to help their physical needs. I really do hope they know that, realize we really do care about them.”
Milton Hinnant not only volunteers on box day but sponsors a box every month and takes it personally to someone he knows who is in need.
“We’re all here on this earth together, all have one Father in Heaven, and we need to serve,” he said. “It’s a way to help people.”
Anyone who wishes to help the ministry can donate items to First UMC, 109 W. College St., Winnsboro, SC 29180. Monetary donations are also welcome; the check memo should read “Blessings.”