By Kara Witherow, Editor
Sometimes it doesn’t take a big crowd to make a big impact.
Jesus was one man. He only had 12 disciples. While few in numbers, the influence of those 13 men shaped the course of history and mankind.
Through its generous spirit and faithful giving, tiny Sweetwater United Methodist Church is doing its part to help transform and shape the lives of children at The Methodist Home for Children and Youth.
During the past 10 years, the 16-member congregation has given more than $10,000 to the Children’s Home.
“This small church said ‘we can’ instead of believing ‘we're too small,’” said Dr. Derek McAleer, vice president for development and church relations at The Methodist Home for Children and Youth. “Being significant is not an issue of the size of the church. Significance has to do with being involved in things that matter. You can be significant without being huge.”
About 10 years ago a former pastor suggested to church leaders the idea of placing a bucket at the front of the church to collect congregants’ pocket change that would then be given to The Methodist Home.
“When she first told me that idea I didn’t have much faith that we could make much money like that, but I’m amazed that it has,” said Sweetwater UMC lay leader D.Q. Pittman. “It makes us feel proud of our church to know that we have given that much to the Children’s Home.”
Even more amazing is the fact that all of the $10,000 came from pocket change and gifts above and beyond congregants’ regular tithes and offerings.
The church is located in the rural farming community of Pearson, in the Waycross District, and is only about 45 minutes from The Methodist Home’s Valdosta campus. With its close proximity, church members have developed special relationships with the girls who live at The Methodist Home’s Valdosta cottage.
For the past three years, Sweetwater UMC has hosted a Christmas party for the girls, inviting them to the church for a special meal and party. Each girl is given gifts including a special, personalized gift chosen just for her.
At the Christmas party two years ago, one young girl watched as Pittman sang and played his guitar in the church’s gospel bluegrass band.
As the young woman chatted with Pittman’s wife – who she didn’t know was his wife – the younger woman said, “I’ve always wanted to play the guitar but my daddy took mine and sold it.”
Just the week before Pittman had told his wife that he had an extra guitar that he wanted to give to someone who wanted to learn to play. Later that evening Mrs. Pittman recounted the story to her husband, and the next week he took the guitar to Valdosta and gave it to the girl.
“It was really a blessing to be able to do that,” said Glenda Pittman, a lifelong Sweetwater UMC member. “It just lifts your spirits to be able to do something for someone else.”
Pastor Rev. Danita Knowles says that same generous spirit flows throughout the small congregation.
“They have very loving, open hearts for giving,” she said.
While the idea of a change bucket at the front of the church may have been a bit foreign to them at first, she said, they have responded generously and faithfully.
That’s how they are whenever they are presented with a need, she said. While church members, most of whom are over 55 and are retired, can’t get out and do as much as they once could, they are very sure and certain of their faith and recognize the gifts and blessings they’ve been given.
“They are not as able as they used to be to do mission activities themselves, but they have channeled their love for Christ and other people into very faithful prayer ministries and into giving to those in need,” Rev. Knowles said. “Their prayers and their money are what they have and they give willingly and very graciously, always. They recognize what their gifts are and what they can do with them and that’s what being a child of God is all about, reaching out to the world around you.”
That generosity of spirit and focus on others has been fostered at Sweetwater UMC for decades. Nearly 50 years ago a pastor had a sign painted that says, “Enter to worship, leave to serve.” Still hanging in the church, everyone who leaves the sanctuary sees it, reminded of their mission and calling.
“For many years they have had pastors who have talked about the fact that the church is outside the building,” Rev. Knowles said. “And that’s what Sweetwater is about.”
Rev. Knowles and the Pittmans say that raising $10,000 in 10 years was never a goal, it was just an expression of the church’s love for God and His people. They’re also not going to stop collecting change for The Methodist Home; they’re going to continue doing what they’ve been doing for the past 10 years.
What they’ve been doing is making a difference in the lives of children.
Sweetwater UMC’s regular and generous donations have helped pay The Methodist Home’s monthly electricity and food bills and have helped send children on yearly vacations to Myrtle Beach. Just a few weeks ago the church donated a trunk full of school supplies.
“They’re helping bring normalcy to kids’ lives,” Dr. McAleer said. “That’s all our kids want. They don’t want to be super special or super different. They want to be normal.”
Giving generously – of their time, their money and their love – is what’s normal for the members of Sweetwater UMC.
“These are folks who have said, we might be a small church, but that doesn’t mean we’re unable to do something,” Dr. McAleer said. “Size does not disqualify us from making an impact for the Gospel.”