Chuck Congi is proof that Hayesville First United Methodist Church is thriving.
Congi, 46, suffered a brain injury during a beating years ago. He has trouble communicating and requires help in caring for himself. And he desperately needed a way out of a dilapidated mobile home whose walls had holes.
The 450-person congregation in Hayesville, N.C., did more than arrange for Congi to move to a safer mobile home. Members offered him food and friendship. They made him feel like a member of their faith family.
“Chuck started coming to our church,” Myra O’Connor, Hayesville First UMC’s director of student ministries. “He had gone to other churches that really didn’t want to take the time to be bothered by him. The folks in this church just stuck with him. We never gave up on him.”
Ministry in a rural context
Hayesville First UMC is located in Clay County, in southwestern North Carolina near the Georgia border – a rural area where locals say everything’s two hours away. The county’s population of 10,000 doubles each summer with an influx of second-home residents. Many are well-heeled Floridians drawn by the cooler climate and magnificent mountains. But in winter especially, the crowds recede and the needs of the year-round residents, like Congi, swell.
That’s where the church’s partnership with the Thriving Rural Communities  initiative at Duke Divinity School has played an encouraging role.
Thriving Rural Communities develops programs that share and strengthen the gifts of rural North Carolina’s clergy, congregations, communities, and creation in the name of Christ. The initiative, which launched four years ago, represents a partnership of Duke Divinity School, the Duke Endowment, and the North Carolina and Western North Carolina Conferences of The United Methodist Church. A cornerstone of the initiative is its relationships with seven Partner Churches, including Hayesville First UMC. These congregations offer other churches across the state different models of how to live the mission of Christ in a rural context, and Thriving Rural Communities provides financial and programmatic support to aid in this effort.
Hayesville First UMC, in the heart of downtown, has long been active in the community. But being part of Thriving Rural Communities has served as a catalyst for the congregation. “This has made us more of a community church,” says the Rev. Kirk Hatherly, pastor of Hayesville First UMC. “In the old days, in the rural communities, the church was the center of the community. We’d like to be that again. This [initiative] has energized us.”
A Wisconsin native, Hatherly, 50, worked in the amusement park and hotel industries before entering Duke Divinity School in 1992. “God finally got a hold of me. He said, ‘Enough fooling around.’” Kirk and Darleen Hatherly and their three young children arrived in Hayesville five years ago.
In the few years since joining Thriving Rural Communities, Hayesville First UMC’s membership hasn’t swelled dramatically – that’s difficult to do in a rural county where growth is stalled. But just as significantly, O’Connor says, the level of community outreach has increased. “Our members are more involved than they used to be.”
Families in Mission
One of the church’s major initiatives, Families in Mission, is buoyed by a $15,000 grant from Thriving Rural Communities.
On the second Saturday of each month, 20 or so church members gathering for breakfast, music, and a devotional. Then they break up into four or five small teams and fan out into the community, doing whatever service a neighbor needs, from cutting grass, to repairing roofs, to building a wheelchair ramp. Referrals come from Meals on Wheels and other community agencies in Hayesville. Amid a flurry of light construction, volunteers build relationships with those in the community in need.
In the first year of Families in Mission, 210 unpaid servants, as the volunteers are known, served 43 households.
Church member Jack Hungerford Sr., 56, who owns a remodeling business, remembers doing yard work and putting down a new vinyl kitchen floor for an elderly woman named Dolly. He makes a practice of staying afterward and eating lunch with those he serves, and as they chatted, it hit him: Dolly got a new floor, and he made a new friend.
“How blessed we both were,” Hungerford says.
Engaging a Community
Families in Mission has expanded beyond Saturday work sessions. One outgrowth, a Christmas Day Dinner, brought 250 neighbors and 50 volunteers to the church for turkey, dressing, and fellowship. Among them was a couple from Canada whose motor home had broken down on their way home. Though they were temporarily stranded, they found they didn’t have to spend Christmas alone.
After the event, church youth took the Christmas Day leftovers to a shelter in Atlanta, two hours away.
The community has noticed the church’s commitment as well. Theresa Waldroup, executive director of Communities in Schools, has been touched by how Hayesville First UMC has extended its reach into the lives of Clay County’s 1,300 students.
Through Families in Mission, church members support the town’s one elementary school, supplying students and staff with bookmarks, cookies, and homemade muffins. The church has also taken individual students under its wing, providing shoes, coats, and other necessities year-round, plus gifts for needy families at Christmas.
Perhaps most poignantly in a county struggling with chronically high unemployment, the church hosts end-of-season banquets for school sports teams, and provides a pre-game meal for the junior varsity football team.
“The boys were hungry,” Waldroup says. “A lot of them just didn’t have pocket money for fast food. First Church said, ‘We’ll just go ahead and feed the whole team.’”
Born and raised in Clay County, Waldroup recalls that the first time the church fed the team, one player rose and announced, “This is my church.” And he wasn’t even a member.
Says Waldroup, about this and all the ministries arising from the Thriving Rural Communities initiative at Hayesville First UMC: “I get emotional. That church will always be that boy’s church. Talking about walking the walk and talking the talk, that church does. I’m telling you, they’re keepers.”
— By Ken Garfield