Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter
LOUISVILLE — Back-to-school season — full of school clothes and supply lists — is challenging enough for those who have plenty of resources to manage.
So image what it’s like for those of limited means, struggling to make every penny stretch to start the school year on good footing.
That’s the population Hands of Christ, a non-profit ministry of the Charleston Atlantic Presbytery in Charleston, S.C., is trying to serve. Its mission is to meet the basic needs of children as they begin each school year, and the program uses volunteers from area Presbyterian churches to distribute school uniforms and supplies to students in kindergarten through 8th grade.
Without clothing and school supplies, “it’s pretty difficult for a child to learn,” said the Rev. Tammy Gregory Brown, co-founder of Hands of Christ and senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charleston. In South Carolina, where 450,000 children are considered low income or impoverished, “the need here is really great,” she said.
The ministry first began in 2003 under the auspices of Zion-Olivet and Westminster Presbyterian churches, African-American and Anglo congregations that crossed the racial divide to partner for the work of Christ. The program was modeled after one Brown was familiar with in Austin, Texas, where she previously served.
The thinking was that “God could use us to do something similar here,” she said. So with the help of a grant from Presbyterian Women, distribution sites were set up at both churches and more than 1,000 were served in about six days that first year.
“We knew that God was at work,” Brown said.
The two churches initially set out to give the ministry a one-year try, and now six years later, Hands of Christ is a validated ministry of the presbytery, has 18 partner congregations and uses nine distribution sites. Next year, two more distribution sites will be added, Brown said.
The ministry’s activities take place primarily during the first three weeks of August, and distributions include two sets of clothing, two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, school supplies and Bibles for those who want them. Other services also are available, including health screenings and information on afterschool mentoring and the local food bank.
Hands of Christ also spends a day distributing to referrals from the schools, and the program continues to function during the rest of the year as needed for situations such as children in emergency shelters who need help, Brown said.
“Each year we have grown,” she said. So far this year more than 2,000 children and their families have been served, and “every one of them has been invited to come back to church,” Brown said.
The ministry also has reached out beyond its boundaries and is more than willing to help others interested in starting a similar program.
“We hope we came move it statewide,” said the Rev. Donnie Woods, executive presbyter and stated clerk of Charleston Atlantic Presbytery. The message to the larger church is “that we are going to have to figure out ways to get beyond the walls of our local congregations.”
When that happens, “people in the community will come to know that the church cares about them,” he said. “You have got to figure out how to bring Christ’s hands to touch the lives of people.”