By Kara Witherow, Special Contributor…
Scripture recounts dozens of ways that Jesus met people’s needs. He fed more than 5,000 men, women and children on the Sea of Galilee’s shore. He restored blind Bartimaeus’ sight. He healed the invalid at Bethesda. And he ministered to the woman caught in adultery.
Through meeting their physical and emotional needs, Jesus was able to minister to and meet their spiritual needs, too.
Tennille United Methodist Church in Tennille, Ga., is following Jesus’ example with their many health ministries. By meeting community members’ physical and health needs, church members are communicating the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
“If we can reach out and make a difference, if we can be in some way a healer, I think that opens people’s hearts to being a little more receptive to the message of the gospel,” said the Rev. Jeff Cook, pastor of Tennille UMC.
“If you’re hurting and in pain, I don’t think you’re always in a place where you can receive the Good News. But if some of that pain is lifted or alleviated, then you know someone cares, somebody wants to make a difference. Maybe then you’ll want to listen to what we have to say and why we do what we do. I think that’s when the opportunity becomes available for us to go a little deeper and share the gospel.”
Several church members, many who are retired nurses and educators, are passionate about health care, Mr. Cook said, and were looking for ways to serve and help others.
Margie Johnson was one of them. A retired registered nurse, Ms. Johnson spearheads and helped develop several of the church’s health ministries.
When one of her friends was diagnosed with cancer, Ms. Johnson learned of the need for a community cancer support group. At the time, the closest one, in Milledgeville, was a 30-minute drive from Tennille.
She felt called to do something, and after discussing the need with Mr. Cook and praying about how she and the church could help, the Washington County cancer support group was launched.
Held monthly in Tennille UMC’s social hall, the group offers support, encouragement and hope to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.
“I was asked to do it and couldn’t say no,” Ms. Johnson said. “I was just responding to a friend’s need. It was something I needed to do.”
The cancer support group inspired other Tennille UMC members to become involved in health and advocacy ministries.
“Since we started the support group, it [heath ministries] has become more of a passion for the whole church,” Mr. Cook said. “They’ve asked how they can help out and be a part of what’s happening.”
The church has been involved in the Washington County Relay for Life for the past three years and will have a team this year, too.
And each October, members host a “Bumps and Bruises” booth at the annual Tennille BBQ Blast barbecue competition. At the booth, nursing students from Georgia College & State University perform free health screenings and first aid for festival-goers, and church members provide entertainment for the kids by giving away balloons and painting faces.
Church members also have a passion for helping those in need of food assistance.
On the second Wednesday of each month they prepare meals for Bread of Life, a community ecumenical food ministry. More than 100 low-income families and shut-ins in Washington County are fed through this program.
Tennille UMC also partners with Golden Harvest Food Bank to provide food for at-risk children each weekend.
Mr. Cook’s passion for health and his background in health care—he’s a former physical therapist—combined with church members’ passion and their desire to help the community, has created a “perfect storm” and helps make a real difference in Tennille and Washington County.
“We have the same vision and the same desire to reach out and share the love of Christ in tangible ways,” Mr. Cook said. “We’re using the gifts and graces of the people in the church. It’s a matter of us looking around and asking, ‘How has God gifted us and how can we match that up with our passions and desires and the needs of the community?’”
Tennille UMC is small, with about 40 worshippers each Sunday, but they are a generous and giving congregation, he said.
“It’s just incredible to see, as a pastor, the willingness of the people to catch that vision and go out and be disciples,” Mr. Cook said. “As they live out their lives as disciples, they’re always looking for ways to help make disciples of Christ.”
And they are growing closer to Christ as a result of their service.
“I’ve seen their faith move from a more inward, personal faith to a faith that’s a lot more outwardly focused, reaching out to fulfill the commandments of Christ to love God and love neighbor,” Mr. Cook said. “They’re doing that in tangible ways. I’ve seen the people of the church really gain an energy and passion for missions and going out and serving in the name of Christ, and going out and living out their faith that others can see.
“They’re really letting their light shine.”
Ms. Witherow is editor of the Advocate, the newspaper of the South Georgia Conference, where this article first appeared.