Even a small church with limited resources can have a large ministry. Take St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania.
The church has fewer than fifty members, many of them getting up in years. On an average Sunday morning there are between thirty-five and forty people present for worship. The Sunday School generally has four children. For most of the church’s life it has been part of a multiple-point charge, sharing a pastor with as many as three other United Church of Christ congregations. For the past year and a half, the people of the church have been served part-time by a retired pastor who lives nearly forty miles away.
St. Paul’s may sound like a church on its last leg, one ready to fold, a lost cause. Far from it. On November 13, 2005, the church put on a concert of local musical and dancing talents that raised more than $2,000 for the orphan children of Shuangmiao village in China.
Earlier in the year, one of the women of the church decided that the members needed a new mission project. On her own initiative she called the Penn Northeast Conference office, and then placed a call to Wider Church Ministries in Cleveland. "Give me an idea about something we can do," she said to the woman on the phone.
That woman on the other end of the phone was Linda Lawrence, who administers the Child Sponsorship Program for Global Ministries, and she began to share the story of her visit to rural Shuangmiao, where a third of the adults had been infected with HIV/AIDS by some traveling entrepreneurs who bought peoples’ blood but used unsterile needles to take it.
So here’s a small church in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania being challenged by one of its own members to do something for the children of a village in rural China, whose parents and grandparents are being lost to them by HIV/AIDS. The project was first picked up by the church’s evangelism committee, which decided that the way to get involved was to have a benefit variety show for the community. Local talents were contacted, and commitments were obtained from a clog dancing group, a gifted high school senior with a beautiful singing voice, a barbershop group, a man who once sang as part of a duo at local resorts, a gospel quartet, and a flashy group that features the music–and appearance–of Elvis Presley. They all understood that they would not be paid and were eager to perform for the benefit.
When it became evident that the church building and parking lot would be too small for the event, the nearby school auditorium was sought, and the school board made it available at minimal expense. The "Elvis" group provided audio equipment for all the acts. Representatives from the church went on the local radio stations to promote the event, and the cable TV system broadcast an interview with church leaders. There were articles and ads in the area newspaper, and the Penn Northeast Conference spread the word through its monthly mailing.
As the day approached, virtually every church member was talking about this event, about Shuangmiao, and about the need for reaching out to help children in need. Almost all of them had a job to do that Sunday afternoon at the school or at the church for the post-concert supper.
And among themselves, the people talked about the wonder of this development: Chinese children, in a community decimated by AIDS; God’s "still-speaking" call; the church’s unexpected mission. It was becoming clear that something more than just singing and dancing was happening here.
Linda Lawrence in Cleveland told us that she wanted to come, and so very early on that Sunday morning two of the church’s members drove to the Newark airport and picked up Linda and Karen Farthing (from the Global Ministries East Asia and Pacific staff), and they arrived back at the church in the middle of the pastor’s sermon. At one point during the "Musical Extravaganza" these two women presented the Global Ministries video about Shuangmiao and answered questions. That evening they got on a Greyhound bus and rode all night to get back to their desks in Cleveland, but their presence was an inspiration for everyone in Swiftwater.
The point of the story is simple: the strength of a local church is not measured by the number of people in the pews, the size of the church’s budget, or the magnificence of the church’s building. It is clear to the people of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, that God has spoken to them about who they are and what they are here for. They did something they had never done before, and in the process, some children they will never meet are being given hope and nurture in the name of Jesus Christ. Now comes the most intriguing question of all for the Swiftwater saints: What do we do next?
Story written by Rev. Fred Kurkowski and edited for the Child Sponsorship web by Rev. William Armstrong.