When churches work together to impact a community, amazing things can happen. Tommy O’Rear, a member of Sibley United Methodist Church and coordinator for UM-Ignite, has witnessed first-hand the benefit of congregations pooling their resources and energy to make a difference in the lives of others.
UM-Ignite is a coalition of congregations in the Shreveport District focusing on outreach to Bienville, Bossier, Claiborne, Red River and Webster parishes. Participating United Methodist churches include Sibley, Brushwood in Dubberly, Cross Roads, Hall Summit, Doyline, Haughton, Ringgold, Castor and Heflin.
“All of the UM-Ignite churches serve smaller communities with a significant amount of poverty. In response to needs created by that poverty, the coalition supports a food pantry hosted at Haughton and Ringgold and sponsors clothing drives for school children and a local nursing home,” said O’Rear, who said that a recent garment drive generated more than 2,500 articles of clothing.
“We were able to provide coats for kids in six different schools in four parishes. As for the nursing home, we found out that residents of the home are on Medicaid and that a number of them didn’t have adequate clothing. It felt good to help them out,” said O’Rear.
Most of the UM-Ignite churches host food drives, collecting canned and dry goods for the food pantry. Volunteers take the items to Ringgold and Haughton and help with distribution of the food. “Also, Brookshire’s grocery allows Haughton to be there to accept donations of food, which helps a lot with keeping a source of items coming,” said O’Rear.
A thrift shop that is spearheaded by Heflin UMC and supported by the coalition churches provides free clothing and household goods to any family in need, especially those who have lost their homes to fire or natural disaster.
Another exciting outgrowth of UM-Ignite is the intentional effort to bring the youth from each of the churches together for joint activities and ministry. The teens have participated in lock-ins, enjoyed concerts and worked alongside church adults in a vibrant ramp ministry spearheaded by Sibley UMC which serves the poor and the elderly. “The kids enjoy quarterly fellowship gatherings with music and games. There is always a devotional, and these events help to build strong Christian relationships as youth that will last a lifetime,” said O’Rear, who added that the youth have “stepped up” to conduct their shared worship services.
Perhaps most impressive is the level of outreach that UM-Ignite churches have achieved in prison ministry. The residents of Bayou Dorcheat Correctional Center in Minden are the frequent recipients of help given by these coalition churches. “There are 60 women in the facility, and UM-Ignite gets information from the prison regarding the number of children of those incarcerated. A toy drive is hosted at each church three weeks before Christmas. We try to collect four toys for each child, as well as shoes, socks and coats,” said O’Rear.
Coalition churches also collect reading materials and hygiene items to distribute to those in the correctional facility.
Male prisoners, who are housed at a different facility, are served by UM-Ignite volunteers through classes offered on substance abuse, anger management and parenting. “There are usually 90 prisoners per session. Attendance in a recent ‘Celebrate Recovery’ class topped out at 140 men,” said Gene Cloud, communications coordinator for UM-Ignite. Volunteers leading these on-site sessions receive training from the Department of Corrections.
During a service held at the prison, a number of the men came down during an altar call with tears in their eyes. “For some, it was the first time they had heard the story of Jesus. So many of these men are worried about their families. Sometimes they tell me to call their mother or their wife to let them know they have found the Lord,” said O’Rear.
When the inmates are paroled or finish their sentence, volunteers with UM-Ignite work to help them find employment. They also invite them to their churches in the hopes that they will find a spiritual home. “In my Sunday school class at Sibley UMC, four of those members are former inmates. I know there are some attending church at Brushwood and Ringgold, too. They all say that they feel so welcomed in our churches,” said O’Rear, who feels that this part of the ministry is as critical as providing personal items and toys. “These people who have paid for their mistakes need to know that they are a part of the family of God. We must love and accept them as any other Christian brother and sister, and not fear getting to know them personally.”
The UM-Ignite initiative has even resulted in prisoners stepping forward, asking to be baptized. “These baptisms are currently being performed by ministers of the coalition churches,” said O’Rear, who indicated that the baptisms for women prisoners are held at a local Baptist church while the men are baptized at the Bayou Dorcheat Correctional Center.