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Three South Georgia United Methodists recognized with prestigious denominational awards


By Kelly Roberson

During the 2023 South Georgia Annual Conference session, meeting June 4-6, three individuals were recognized for their contributions in their local church and ministry settings and for their disciple-making efforts and faithfulness to their calling with prestigious denominational awards.

Rev. CJ Harp, Valdosta State University Wesley Foundation director, received the Francis Asbury Award from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry; Rev. Jerry Hudson, senior pastor of Bemiss United Methodist Church, received the One Matters Award from Discipleship Ministries; and Mr. Johnny Updike, Georgia Southwestern University Wesley Foundation director, received the Harry Denman Evangelism Award from the Foundation on Evangelism. 

The Francis Asbury Award

Named for early American Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury, the Francis Asbury award honors his call to establish a school in the vicinity of every church. “We must,” he said, “ … give the key of knowledge to your children, and those of the poor in the vicinity of your small towns and villages.”

Today, the award recognizes United Methodist individuals who have made a significant contribution to fostering United Methodist ministries in higher education at the local, district or annual conference level. It is awarded annually to one honoree per annual conference.

The Rev. Dr. Michael McCord, Executive Director of the Georgia United Methodist Commission on Higher Education and Collegiate Ministry, presented the award and highlighted the impact Rev. CJ Harp is making on the campus of Valdosta State University and in the lives of college students.

Rev. Harp says he is deeply honored to receive the Francis Asbury award, who for him is a hero in the faith and whose legacy has encouraged him many times throughout the years to get back on the horse of vocational ministry.  

“God has shown great mercy and favor towards the ministry of the VSU Wesley Foundation,” said Rev. Harp. “My recognition is really a recognition of the hundreds of staff and student leaders that I’ve had the great honor to work with to create a culture of discipleship helping college students come to know Jesus and walk more like Jesus. That’s discipleship, and it’s always been about discipleship.”

Rev. Harp likes to point to a quote by Bishop Francis Asbury: “Oh what people of God we ought to be; and grace can make us so!”

The One Matters Award

Every year, Discipleship Ministries partners with Annual Conferences by offering the One Matters Award to one eligible congregation at each Annual Conference. This award has a strong focus on making disciples. While most Discipleship Ministries Programs focus on existing members, One Matters focuses on new members.

The Rev. Dr. Paula Lewis, superintendent of the North Central and South Central districts, presented the One Matters Award, along with a check for $1,000 from discipleship ministries, to Rev. Jerry Hudson and Bemiss United Methodist Church.

Rev. Hudson and Bemiss UMC continually look around and ask how they can serve their community, whether it's celebrating with bikers on Biker Sunday, helping displaced United Methodists find their place, or with a hot dog and a prayer, they live out the calling that every one matters.

Serving the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of their community is “kind of our thing” at Bemiss UMC, says church leaders. From providing 24/7 access to food to sharing meals with their neighbors, hosting Back-to-School events, and coordinating numerous other community-oriented activities throughout the year, they believe wholeheartedly in living out Jesus' call to love and serve every life they have the opportunity to encounter.

"To say that I am proud, humbled, and honored to serve the congregation of Bemiss UMC would be a gross understatement,” said Rev. Hudson. “The spirits of compassion and service are thick at Bemiss, and it shows through both their dedication to grow as disciples of Jesus and to go above and beyond to address the spiritual and physical needs of their community.

“Even though we are relatively small in numbers, we have been able to reach others in some pretty mighty ways. God has placed a fire in the hearts of our people, and they have responded faithfully. We truly appreciate the recognition of our efforts by the South Georgia Conference, but, as in all things, all glory belongs to God. I pray He will continue to bless us with wisdom, guidance, and the heartfelt desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in the weeks, months, and years to come,” said Rev. Hudson.

The Harry Denman Evangelism Award

The final award presented was the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, the United Methodist Church’s highest evangelism honor.

Evangelism happens in many contexts and many settings; impacts and engages all generations; and requires relationship among a variety of persons. What distinguishes a Denman Award recipient is the commitment to consistently introduce others to the Good News of Jesus Christ in all ministry settings. Their ministry is exceptional for the number of new Christ followers who credit encounters with this person as critical in helping to start or reignite their faith journey.

Each year Annual Conferences and the Foundation for Evangelism recognize persons in each conference. This year’s Harry Denman Evangelism award recipient is Mr. Johnny Updike, Wesley Foundation Director at Georgia Southwestern University.

While Updike could not physically be at the 2023 Annual Conference session, a video was shown in which Dr. McCord presented the award to Updike via Zoom, surrounded by his family and several of the youth he is in ministry with.

In nominating him, Dr. McCord said the following: “Johnny is an exceptionally gifted leader who is committed to sharing Christ with youth and young adults. As the Wesley director at Georgia Southwestern State University, he has invested himself in the lives of students in ways that have led to professions of faith, life transformation, and radical change. He has empowered and supported students to become faith leaders on and off campus. This kind of commitment to students has led to significant growth (both depth and breadth) of the ministry to the Georgia Southwestern campus. More importantly, students have shared powerful stories of his witness and care for them.”

A board member for the Georgia Southwestern Wesley Foundation said: “Johnny Updike is in a class by himself in terms of his dedication, his ability to relate to students, and in his ministry. He is bold, yet tender in his relationship with students. In everything he does, he points to Christ.”

One of his students had this to say: “Before going to college, I had been stagnant in my faith and distant from God because of past experiences and situations. I truly believe God used Johnny to work in my life and show me the love of Christ again and to realize that God isn’t mad at me, and I’m worthy of His love and to be used to show others that love. He helped me grow into a person of faith, love, confidence, and especially peace that I never thought I would be.”

And his son had this to say: “My dad’s impact on the lives of students in need has changed so many lives, so many for the better. I can personally attest that he is more than worthy of awards and accolades. However, the aspect of what makes him truly great is that he doesn’t do what he does for personal recognition; he does it because it is what he feels the Lord is calling him to do. You’ll even hear him say, ‘It’s not what I did, it’s look what God did.’ There could not be a better example of a Godly man than my dad.” 

“I am reminded that we may be recipients of awards like this but the most important thing is that Jesus receives the hearts,” said Updike in receiving the award. “This is why we do what we do and why campus ministry matters.”  

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