By Jessica Brodie
CHARLESTON—Using their building to host mission teams was not part of Aldersgate United Methodist Church’s ministry plan. But God had other ideas.
It all started a few years ago when the South Carolina Conference of the UMC needed a place for a disaster recovery volunteer to stay while he coordinated construction efforts in the area. Aldersgate UMC had the empty space, said pastor the Rev. Erik Grayson, so they offered it on a short-term basis.
It was just supposed to be temporary. As Grayson said, “At first, we were opposed to hosting teams here.”
But then the need grew more evident, and Aldersgate members quickly realized this was a new direction God was pointing them toward. The volunteer ended up supplying a shower trailer, and more and more hurricane recovery teams began to surface with similar requests. After all, mission work in the Lowcountry was needed, but Charleston can be a pricey place to stay, with few inexpensive options for churches and other groups.
“We realized even though this was not in our plan, it was something God was leading us to,” Grayson said. “We ended up hosting 500 people that year.
“How often do empty churches have spaces that just sit empty?”
The need continued to grow, and Aldersgate continued to respond. And now, just a few years later, the church has decided to fully embrace this new plan God has for them, launching what they have called Holy City Mission.
Holy City Mission is a hospitality ministry at Aldersgate that enables mission, youth, alternative spring break and other groups to stay at the church free of charge while they are there to do service work in the Charleston area. Guests are able to stay in one of two rooms in the church, as well as any other space in the church not in use, such as other classrooms or the recreation room. There is a full kitchen, as well as 28 bunk beds total, plus when it is not cold, there are also 75 cots in the church’s winter warming shelter.
“We book on first-come, first-served basis,” Grayson said.
They do ask for a love offering to offset the cost of utilities and cleaning duties, but that is far less expansive than a hotel room, especially for a large group.
“I was one of those opposers, who thought it wouldn’t work at first,” said church staffer Stephanie Zartman, the coordinator of the Holy City Mission. “But I saw it unfolding and saw God working really hard, and it was awesome to experience. Now it’s a mini victory that we can continue to do God’s work and connect with amazing people in our community and outside our community.”
Connecting is key, Grayson and Zartman said. Sometimes, groups come knowing exactly where they plan to volunteer, but other times, they are seeking suggestions of places needing help. Aldersgate has lined up partnerships with organizations often needing assistance, including Habitat for Humanity, Ronald McDonald House, Lowcountry Orphan Relief, Home Works of America, Lowcountry Food Bank and local thrift store Recycled Love.
“Our hope is we want Methodists to come, we want youth groups and service groups and Wesley Foundation groups, we want people to know we’re here,” Grayson said.
Guests bring their own bedding and food, but Aldersgate provides beds, kitchen, dining space, evening worship in the sanctuary, a shower trailer with a male and female side, and they are currently fundraising to install internal showers in the building.
“We give them a set of keys basically and say, ‘You’re at home,’” Zartman said.
And it does not need to be a specifically Christian or United Methodist group, either—any organized and established group is welcome.
“In some ways, we’re ministering to groups that come in terms of our witness,” Grayson said. “We want them to know why we do what we do.”
Their church is located in a lower-income, diverse community in North Charleston on a street several miles long with an airport and train station on one end and ports on the other. They not only offer a warming shelter for people to come stay when temperatures drop below freezing, but also a food bank and clothing closet.
“We see ourselves as a neighborhood church,” Grayson said, noting they enjoy the opportunity to model how they follow and serve Christ in a number of ways. “We want them to understand the context of the neighborhood and why it’s important we do the missions we do.”
In the future, Aldersgate also hopes to offer a reflection component, with a module helping people reflect on the race history or poverty of Charleston in a Christian context.
Grayson sees what Aldersgate is doing as much like the story of the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30, where Jesus taught about using our gifts to benefit the Kingdom.
“We have empty rooms, and we can use them to store junk, or we can invest in the Kingdom and host teams,” Grayson said.