September 30, 2013

First UMC members become the church, help community

Misty Watson

— Jeannie Stewart says she has hope for her family’s future again, and she knows they will move beyond their current struggles.

Her husband, Travis Mertz Stewart, was in a car wreck in April that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Since then, Jeannie Stewart says she has struggled with her duties as caretaker, mother and wife.

“Now I can focus on being a wife and a mother,” she said. “It was a death. The life I’d always known with that person is different now.”

Her new found hope is all thanks to volunteers from Dalton First United Methodist Church. They skipped worship services on Sunday to make a difference in the community by working on various service projects as part of the “Don’t go to church. Be the church” day. The Stewarts’ home was one of many projects throughout Whitfield County.

More than 400 people participated in more than 20 projects including baking cookies and thanking public servants, such as firefighters; planting flowers and cleaning around schools; cleaning and doing yard work at several nonprofit agencies; writing letters to soldiers, people in prison and others needing encouragement and cleaning people’s yards.

Church members gave the Stewarts a “mini-extreme home makeover,” rebuilding a ramp that makes it easier for Travis Stewart’s wheelchair to travel. They cleared an area of a thicket so their children, ages 6 and 8, could get off the school bus on a side street closer to their home instead of walking down a long driveway. They cleaned the yard, planted easy-to-care-for plants around the home, created a driveway turnaround, cleaned the home inside and out and redecorated the girls’ bedroom.

“They said originally they would do the ramp and outside,” Jeannie Stewart said. “The girls’ room is probably the biggest thing. They probably get the worst end of it sometimes. For them to have something that is just theirs is the greatest gift. Thank you.”

The “Abundant Life” Sunday school class at the church adopted the Stewarts’ project, even raising funds to send the family on an overnight trip to Chattanooga where they paid for the gas to get there, dinner, tickets to the Tennessee Aquarium and the Imax Theatre.

“They went way above and beyond anything in my imagination,” Jeannie Stewart said. “We could breathe and have fun as a family. It was the first time we have been able to get out and not feel confined. It was the first time since April we’ve been a family.”

Before the project, the Stewarts and members of the Sunday school class were “complete strangers.” Her family had a loose connection with Lynne Cabe, a member of the class.

“It was so fun to be part of it,” Cabe said. “I’m really into teamwork. It’s collective impact. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Fran Brantley said it’s not unusual for the Sunday school class to take on mission work, but it’s usually financially based or it’s much smaller scale than Sunday’s project.

“I think this hands-on approach takes satisfaction to a different level,” he said. “The idea (don’t go to church) is great. It worked out really well.”

All over Whitfield County, people were echoing the same sentiment.

“It feels good to be able to do something for others,” said 16-year-old Bridge Blakey after finishing some yard work at City of Refuge. “I think it went really well today. We got a lot done.”

Kenny Ott, the church’s outreach minister, said he witnessed church members doing more than they were asked all day Sunday.

“I was really proud of the people at our church,” he said. “They really embraced it. They went above and beyond the list of things given to them.”

Several people finished one project and then asked to go help finish another, Ott said.

“My vision would be to see the county covered with people being the hands and feet of Jesus,” he said. “There is power in the church coming together for one purpose. I hope this is just the beginning for our community.”

At Roan School volunteers spent several hours working, including planting flours, trimming bushes and cleaning out a clothes closet. The closet is where employees go if they notice a child who doesn’t have a coat and needs one or if a child has an accident during a school day.

“It’s very important for us not to just go to church on Sunday mornings, but to be the church,” said Dick Coleman, a member of the church. “This is the fun part.”

Judy Beggs, from Gadsden, Ala., came to help out the church. She wasn’t just there because Ott is her son, but she also believes it’s a great idea for a church to be involved in service projects in the community.

“This is what local missions are all about,” Beggs said. “Missions should start at home.”

Catherine Czerneski, a member of the church and a teacher in the autism program at Roan, said she is glad to see people involved and caring about the local schools.

“I’m excited to give back and do something I don’t get paid for,” Czerneski said. “I’m very happy to see all these people coming out. It makes the school look nicer for the kids and teachers.”

Ott says he hopes days of service similar to this become a regular occurrence not just for the Dalton First UMC, but churches all throughout the area. He hopes other organizations get involved as well.

One will most likely be planned for this time again next year, but he says he’s willing to have them twice a year or quarterly. There’s already a list of projects Ott plans to follow up on soon.

“I want the people of the church and the community to know how proud the leadership team is of them,” Ott said. “Thank you.”