Rural Church Offers Community Development Grants Through Project Gratitude – Baptist News Global
Pastor Dennis Atwood concluded a series of sermons focused on gratitude last fall as he challenged his congregation at First Baptist Church of Mount Olive to seek systemic solutions to systemic poverty and food insecurity in their rural eastern corner of the North Carolina.
What they came up with is “Project Gratitude,” an ongoing $100,000 community development grant initiative for individuals, nonprofits, and local ministries trying to address the root causes of hunger and poverty in Wayne County.
“We try to do intentional things to target that part of the community because it’s undeserved in so many ways. It’s a systemic problem, but the solution has to start somewhere,” Atwood said.
The effort drew attention by Jason Coker, Baptist pastor and president of Together for Hope, a national community development coalition that tackles poverty and hunger primarily in rural areas.
In an email praising the business, Coker said he hopes other congregations will follow the example of Atwood and his church, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“It’s a huge investment in their local community, and I think it’s a great model for other FBC congregations,” Coker said. “It’s a really good way for a church to have an impact on their city.”
While being home to Mount Olive Pickle Co. and Mount Olive University, the city has a poverty rate of 26%, mostly concentrated in neighborhoods near the First Baptist Church which include large Haitian and Hispanic communities.
“Our part of Wayne County doesn’t have overwhelming homeless people that you can visibly see,” Atwood explained. “It’s more of the dilapidated housing type. You have many individuals and families in a house who cannot afford to live in their own accommodation. You also see a lot of vacant and overgrown land. Like many other places, it’s a tale of two towns where you have a very obvious pocket of poverty, and you have everything else on the other side of the tracks that seems pretty well maintained. Our church is right on the line of that part of our community that is turning into a pocket of poverty.
The community development effort is not the congregation’s first foray into helping the poor within it, he said. “We have been very involved in the community for years providing winter coats, gifts to local schools, teachers and staff, and tutoring local school children. We’ve had a lot of different tentacles in the community, but it’s been more with one-time giveaways and special events.
First Baptist also hosted immigrant churches in its spaces for years at a time.
“We had a partnership with a Haitian congregation in our town, but they left our building to be self-sustaining,” the pastor said. “They have a growing and active ministry. But we continue to support each other. The Hispanic church we housed has also moved to its own facility. We have become a kind of relay for them and a place of birth to launch them into an autonomous congregation.
But the goal behind the new ministry is to expand into a long-term community development ministry, he said. “We’re really more interested in long-lasting, ongoing projects that can take root and change the direction of people’s lives.”
“We knew we had these funds sitting around for years without doing anything, and the church voted unanimously to take care of it.”
Atwood noted that the congregation immediately shared his enthusiasm for the idea. “We knew we had these funds sitting around for years without doing anything, and the church voted unanimously to take care of it. Church committees and councils were supportive and enthusiastic about giving back to the community out of gratitude for what God had done for us.
The grant applications, which have arrived at a ‘slow trickle’ since the effort went public in April, so far including one to provide piano lessons and pianos to ‘economically disadvantaged children’, two after-school tutoring ventures and a youth football program for poor children in first through sixth grades.
There are also a few proposals that revolve around home renovations and improvements for homeowners who can’t afford to upgrade their homes.
The church requires progress reports after six months and a year, Atwood said. “It’s not about applying for a one-time grant. And we hope that other churches and organizations can see what we are doing and develop their own ministries like this.
Atwood said the initiative helped him and his congregation as they searched for a new rhythm after COVID-19.
“It’s been a very rewarding experience for me to be engaged in hands-on ministry where can we put that money where it will do the most good for the most people. It’s meant to be who we are – the presence of Christ in the community and in the world.
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