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Miles and Miles of Hope
The Full Story of how Cumberland United Methodist Church
uses demographics in ministry. . .
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What's in a name? For some people, it could spell their destiny. In the case of Hope Vickers, the pastor of Cumberland United Methodist Church in North Carolina, her name sounds exactly like what she is: A minister (vicar) of hope to a community—especially to many of its children, for whom the word "hope" has little meaning.

Cumberland County has the largest case of child abuse in the state, perhaps even in the country. It's a staggering statistic, one that could easily overwhelm a mid-sized church of 120 already beset with the kinds of problems that many rural churches face in postmodern times.

But Hope Vickers is not a woman who runs from difficulties, especially when they concern children. Before coming to Cumberland, Hope was the Director of Children's Ministries for a large Methodist church in nearby Fayetteville. It was while in that position that she felt the call to become an ordained minister. "During that time God taught me that while my special love is children, in God's eyes we are all His children," exclaims Hope. "So, being a pastor to all ages was what I believe God wanted me to do!"

Hope took the challenge of shepherding her new congregation head on. From almost her first day on the job six years ago, she grabbed the proverbial shovel, jumped into the trenches, and started digging.

What Hope first dug up was important demographic information about the people who lived in her ministry area. This, she believed, was a
critical first step before she could begin to make any long-range plans. To find the information she needed, she followed the suggestion of Steve Compton, Director of Congregational Development for the North Carolina Conference UMC during a church workshop that he led. His advice? Order Percept's Ministry Area Profile. The Profile she received detailed her ministry area within a 5-mile radius. Her church received information on the types of things they needed to know about a community: income, education level, as well as any special needs or interests. The report also gave her a breakdown of ages and general values. From that comprehensive demographic information she was then able to develop a 5-year plan that included, among other things, a significant expansion of their outreach ministries.

For this tiny church of then only 60 members (average attendance) "outreach ministries" was little more than a nice-sounding concept. "Our church was focused inward," says Hope. "The only ministry that they did was to serve a breakfast for homeless people. It was a small group-about 8 or 10 people-and even at that it was only done once a month at another church."

The homeless ministry was the first one that "Ms. Hope" as her parishioners affectionately call her, began to expand significantly. Soon after that they joined forces with Fayetteville Urban Ministries and a program called "Operation In-As-Much", started by a Baptist church. In this ministry (which has since spread to other states), 30 or 40 churches from all denominations work together, adopting homes in economically disadvantaged areas for house "makeovers." Twice a year, members of these varying denominations gather together, not to discuss doctrinal issues but to get down and dirty. They start early in the morning and work all the way through to
early evening: fixing roofs, painting, replacing bathrooms, cleaning yards, and performing other housing rehab projects. Cumberland UMC church provides lunch for both their work team and the homeowners, as well as bringing gifts for the kids and a Bible signed by each team member. Older members work alongside teenagers, sometimes learning a skill they never thought they could do. (Including the most difficult skill of all: getting along with other church members!)

What the church volunteers also learn is how the "other half" lives. For Ray Dawber, a Cumberland UMC member and church coordinator of the project, it has opened his eyes to a world outside of his comfortable middle-class neighborhood. He admits it has not always been a pretty sight.

"You really have to focus when you go into these neighborhoods because they are often drug-infested, high-crime areas," says Dawber. "Sometimes we even get harassed because we're working on a
neighbor's house and not theirs. One 70-80 year old woman had all the windows in her house smashed by an intruder. We found out later that she had almost been raped. That's the kind of neighborhood we are going into."

But more importantly than repairing houses, was the need to mend broken lives. Nowhere was this brokeness more acutely felt than with Cumberland County's children and youth. "The Percept information showed us that there were both a lot of latchkey kids and juvenile delinquency in the area; we could see that the two factors correlated," says Hope. "So to help alleviate the problem, we started an after-school tutoring and mentoring program in partnership with the local school for at-risk, middle school kids. It's called "The Escape Place."

Funded in part by a Duke Endowment and a grant from the
Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, The Escape Place is free to the families. The local school brings the kids to the church where they are tutored, play games, as well as participate in devotions.

Unfortunately, for some children, there is no escape from the everyday violence inflicted upon them by the very people who were supposed to protect and nurture them. Their only hope of survival is placement into an already over burdened foster-care system.

Take Jerome (not his real name). As babies do, he would often cry.

For that "infraction", his mother would punish him with beatings that ultimately resulted in his tiny legs being broken. He was one of the lucky ones. Eventually he was rescued from his young life of torment and placed into a loving foster home. Because that family was also a member of Cumberland UMC, the baby became doubly blessed. In the words of 15-year church member, Audrey Clifton, "Whenever that baby was brought to church everyone in the church would love on him." All that "lovin on" has paid off richly—Jerome is now a healthy, happy little boy.

For the many other foster kids located in the church's ministry area, even basic things that most American children receive, like toys at Christmas, were luxuries they never got to enjoy. Until Audrey, at the request of Ms. Hope, asked the facilitator of the foster parents support group that met in their church if their foster kids "needed anything."

The woman responded immediately. "We need you to adopt our foster kids for Christmas," she replied. "No problem," replied Audrey. "All I have to do is run it by Ms. Hope." What neither Audrey nor Hope realized was that there were over 350 children who needed gifts! This was a problem. But not an insurmountable one for a determined pastor and some very devoted church members who were committed to do whatever it took to get the job done. "'You can't outgive God!' That's what Ms. Hope always tell us," says Audrey. So we all got together and prayed. She didn't care if the number of kids who needed toys and clothes was overwhelming. Nor was she daunted by the fact that the burden was all on our church. She told me, 'We'll just see. We'll find another church to help if we
need to, but either way, we won't let the children down.'"

And they didn't. Every single member—from the oldest to the youngest—got involved until the church was literally overflowing with wrapped gifts. "It was the most excited I had ever seen the church," laughs Audrey. "Everyone walked around with smiles on their faces, peeking into the room where the gifts kept piling up. It took three trucks to haul them away! It went so well, that we are now buying gifts for the kids every year."

Ask Ms. Hope how she thinks all these outreach ministries have impacted her church members and she answers: "Outreach ministry is now our congregation's lifeblood. It's their way of sharing God's love and grace giving them a purpose and direction they didn't have before. They opened their hearts; they were more than motivated, they were driven to respond to the needs they saw. With the Percept information we received, all of our eyes were opened to see the needs that were really around us. And in doing that, it made us explore those things in more depth and respond in ways that we knew we could."

Not surprisingly, that kind of engaged response to the needs of the community around them has caused their church to grow. In just a few years, it has doubled in size. But to Hope, it's not just about filling pews with warm bodies-it's also about turning believers into disciples. She herself was deeply impacted by a Disciple Bible Study that she undertook while in her previous position. Now she helps her congregation grow by conducting a discipleship bible study that helps each member discover their gifts for ministry.

"Understanding your gifts for building ministry is a part of building up the whole church answering the need to identify what it is that God has called you to do," says Hope. "So I think that all of those things work together: nurturing the members by helping them to discover their place in ministry and then looking outward to the community. Percept's resources were also invaluable in helping us do that."

Cumberland UMC is, quite literally, on the fast road to success. Within a few years, their church is slated to become part of a 5-lane highway bypass. Hope looks at this as a positive thing. With thousand of cars whizzing by everyday within 60 ft. of their door they won't have any problem with visibility. Not only will Cumberland UMC continue to be witnesses to God's love in the community, but many of those residents will see the church building, shining as a beacon of hope on a hill, as they commute to work. And that's just fine with Ms. Hope who believes that work and faith should join together like highways and intersections.

"I see our congregation as being leaders in the community," states Hope. "One of the members of our church is the mayor. I passed on to him the demographic information I had received from Percept because I felt it was important that, as a community leader, he know some of these things as well. Both of us believe that Christians should be on the park board, the recreation board, the city council and so forth. Ministry should impact your whole life as well as others—it's not just what you do in church."

Hope's future plans include a building expansion program. To adequately plan for the space—what ministries it will house, how the space should be divided, etc.—Hope intends to acquire another updated Ministry Area Profile.

As to the future of Cumberland UMC and the church at large, Hope is very optimistic. Part of what fuels that optimism is the strong faith that she sees exhibited in the lives of the many servicemen and women stationed nearby at Fort Bragg . It gives her a broader perspective that she might not have had, ensconced as the church is in a rural enclave of small communities.

"I find it very encouraging to see family after family of servicemen and women who have been in Afghanistan," says Hope. "They know, deep in their hearts, that their faith will make all the difference. And when they come back and tell me stories of the need for children—especially little girls—to have an education and a chance for freedom, it does make us appreciate our freedom and our opportunity to worship."

Nestled closest to the faith community of Cumberland UMC is a little town called, ironically, Hope Mills. It sits thousands of miles away from Afghanistan, yet for many of the town's residents, as well as the people in the surrounding Cumberland communities, freedom is as equally foreign a concept. They are bound, not by religious oppression, but by the never-ending cycle of poverty and abuse. They could easily say as others have before them, "We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope." [1 Chron. 29:15]

Pastor Hope Vickers and the members of Cumberland UMC are looking to change that. They don't believe anyone should be a stranger to hope—especially anyone within their sight. And so this vibrant and growing congregation on the hill is committed to bringing not just hope, but the love of Christ into their world, their community—impacting it one child, one family, one house at a time. -Jenni Keast

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