Guest commentary by Richard Peterson
Maybe hard times have to get worse before they get better. It seems like that’s the way it happened in June of 2008 for a church in Brown County, Indiana. A sudden flood awakened the 34-member congregation to the plight of hundreds of already struggling families who lost what little they had.
Brown County Presbyterian Fellowship (BCPF), meeting in a quaint log-built church building in Nashville, Indiana, was on the verge of collapse from lack of a minister, low attendance and discord. Scott Seay, a pastor and professor of church history at Christian Seminary in Indianapolis, had taken the reigns as temporary and part-time pastor the February four months before the flood hit.
“They were taking people from their homes in airboats and bringing them to the YMCA,” said BCPF member Mary Kilgore. She checked to see what they needed and learned that towels were in demand so people could shower and then decide where they were going. “I went home, gathered up my towels, and called [a friend] and told her to bring her towels and come on.”
When a woman in tears asked Kilgore if she could help her find dry clothes to put on, reality set in for the retired school teacher. “I finally found clothing for the lady that I would put on.” As she rummaged through bins of “trash” clothing, she grew angry enough to call people from the BCPF to bring their extra clothes. “I called people at other churches who had children, so we would have a variety of stuff. We took whatever people gave us. That’s how we started. We grew from there.”
At that time there were no clothing ministries of any kind in Brown County, Seay said. “This was our church’s response.” They didn’t know it then, but it was the response to reach out to others in need that saved the church.
They received grants from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and several outside organizations, Seay recalls. “That became the seed money to get it going,” Seay said. Once the clothing ministry to help the flood victims was up and running, it became apparent that the need extended beyond the devastation from the flood. People in the flood-affected northeastern and western areas of the county were already living in poverty. Five feet of water made people take notice of their plight.
By this time the ministry had a name — they called it “God’s Grace” — and it was joined by the Parkview Church of the Nazarene and the National Christian Church. More grant money and donated products followed.
“As I look back at the work of God’s Grace at that time in early 2008,” Seay said, “I was told I would likely be presiding over the closure of this congregation.” From its 1999 inception, the church had experienced at least one schism over denominational politics. “It’s not too much to say the disaster re-energized the commitment of this congregation into ministry in the local community. It got the church to focus on something other than harrumphing about what was going on in the denomination.” Grant money from the denomination reminds people how important their connection to the church is, he said.
Kilgore and Leona Tilton, her partner in God’s Grace, volunteer more than time and energy into its growth. They employ a talent for building a network of purchasing agents throughout the area who scour the stores and go to garage sales for the best deals. “The two of them are bulldogs,” Seay said, who are not above approaching local philanthropic agencies and suppliers like Walmart, Nike, Kohl’s and others for donations. With donations of oral hygiene products from a local dentist and contributions from other churches, God’s Grace has become a community ministry that operates out of the tiny BCPF.
Kilgore and Tilton appropriated rooms in the church that once had been classrooms to install racks to organize clothing for men, women and children and shelve shoes and other items. “Price tags” on the clothing have no price, but size and description of the clothing; they’re collected at checkout to keep track of inventory and the people being served. The ministry opens its doors once a month for people to choose what they need.
Four years after the flood, God’s Grace began its annual “On The Road Again” back-to-school event. Tilton remembers it well: “We had people come by and cry because they had no money to buy school clothes for their children.” And from her years as a teacher, Kilgore recalls with heartache how easy it was to pick out the poor kids from the others by the way they were dressed. “It was horrific for the kids who had nothing. I’d go home in tears,” Kilgore said.
It was obvious the classrooms in the church basement couldn’t begin to accommodate the 14 racks of clothes needed for On the Road Again. So they moved to an elementary school gymnasium in the area that had been flooded. We managed to clothe 149 kids that first year, Kilgore remembers. The following year they returned with 25 racks and clothed nearly 200 children. Moving two years ago to a school in Nashville, which is more centrally located in the county, the back-to-school ministry in 2016 served 552 children.
People who come to On the Road Again can “shop” for the clothes they need, Kilgore said. “They get new underwear, new socks, a pair of new shoes and a week’s worth of outfits – including seven or eight shirts, five bottoms, dresses for girls, if they want them. Pajamas and coats are a bonus, if we have them.” Toothpaste and toothbrushes, soap, deodorant and shampoo are included. Four beauticians are on site to cut and style children’s hair, and a seamstress sews up any clothes that need to be repaired or altered.
Kilgore admits some have urged God’s Grace to charge at least a few cents on the dollar for the clothing and other items the ministry distributes. And they do on occasion when expensive, high-demand clothes or sports shoes are donated. But nearly all the items at God’s Grace are given freely.
“This year word got out to neighboring communities and they put it on their radio stations unbeknownst to either one of us,” Kilgore said. “We had people coming from out of town, and some of our volunteers and donors said they thought this was supposed to be local. It is designed for just Brown County, but when you see these little kids, obviously needing something to wear to school, how do you say, ‘Sorry, you can’t have anything’? That’s not my heart. That’s between them and the Lord. We’re there. We have the clothes.”
Seay calls his association with On the Road Again his wakeup call. “I remember a woman who had four children in tow and clutching a paper given to her when she walked in the door. It was a guide to show her where to find things. She was becoming increasingly frustrated: ‘I just can’t find anything.’ She was nearly in tears. She had the guide, but it turns out she couldn’t read.”
As a teacher at a graduate theological school, it was unimaginable to Seay that somebody couldn’t read. “It’s the reality we are dealing with in this context.” He allows that story may be more the exception than the rule, but they are dealing with a population that is impoverished. He discovered there are greater, more systemic issues that contribute to and perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
Seay describes the people of Brown County as either wealthy or impoverished with few in between. The wealthy are the more recent arrivals, there for the beauty of the heavily wooded and hilly countryside. The more indigenous folks eke out a living in the county’s lowlands, as they have for generations. They are fiercely independent, for the most part undereducated and reluctant to connect with a church. Alcoholism and drug use is rampant and many have had negative experiences with church in the past.
As God’s Grace became more established in the county, the polar opposites became more aware of each other and may one day come to trust each other. People at the church hope so, but making the connection “takes a lot of work,” Seay said. He has seen God at work leading people to help by starting a literacy program, reaching out to shelter battered women and helping them find jobs, setting up bank accounts and helping neighbors find places to live. Seay calls it nothing less than miraculous the way individual calls to ministry seem to fit together in a systematic way without an obvious plan. “When God so loved the world,” Seay said, God “didn’t send a committee.”
He is reminded of Jesus feeding the five thousand. While the disciples saw the size of the crowd and the hopeless situation before them, Jesus, motivated by nothing more complicated than deep compassion, urged them to give what they had and expect God to do the rest.
“God does seem to be blessing the ministry in miraculous ways,” he said.
RICHARD PETERSON is a retired reporter and editor. He lives in Summerville, South Carolina, with his wife Elizabeth. They have two adult children and six grandchildren.