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by Andres Castillo
It took three days to dig the ditch that would divert water away from Gary, West Virginia homeowner Lucretia Ford’s house, but it was worth every second. “It wasn’t fun even though we tried to make it fun,” Bally (PA) congregation’s Jim Longacre admits. “In the same way, serving God sometimes isn’t fun and can be hard work, but in the end is very rewarding.”
The reward for the hard work comes in the form of relationships with those the SWAP volunteers come to help. Congregations haven’t been just serving Appalachian people through SWAP (Sharing With Appalachian People), but mutually sharing gifts with them.
An organization of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), SWAP has endeavored to make houses safer, warmer, and drier for the Appalachian community in the United States for over 30 years. In the summer of 2018, groups from Bally and Blooming Glen (PA) congregations both served at SWAP’s West Virginia location. There, they experienced the one-week service program that emphasizes relationships as much as fixing houses.
For a long time, the West Virginia SWAP ministry typically rented and did not own permanent property. Following SWAP’s move from Elkhorn to Kimball, however, Houston United Methodist Church offered them the opportunity to purchase their own facility. After experiencing this ministry firsthand, both Bally and Blooming Glen stepped in to help. “When we learned of the opportunity extended to SWAP to purchase this residence, it struck us that maybe we could assist them with it,” Bally’s youth leader Mike Gehman says. Since then, members of both congregations, especially youth, have raised funds so that SWAP can purchase the house.
In addition to housing volunteers, the facility will provide more flexibility for SWAP and send a positive message to the community. “By putting this anchor down, it says that we intend to be here with roots that can’t be uprooted,” SWAP’s location coordinator Lee Martin states. The people of Appalachia are important to SWAP, he adds. Every time SWAP and the community members share meals and stories, they touch each others’ lives. They strive to “blow judgmental thoughts [of Appalachian residents] out of the water,” share about Jesus, and build strong relationships with the members of the community.
During one of Bally’s work days, one of their youth, Zack, went missing for some time. He wasn’t escaping the work but was inside talking to Ford. By the end of the day, she had “basically labeled him her adopted grandson,” says Longacre.
“If you have the opportunity to sit down and talk with a homeowner, that isn’t taking you away from your work. That is your work,” says Martin. “The work acts as a venue to build relationships.” This philosophy is one reason the two congregations were moved to work together to help SWAP purchase their new facility.
MCC’s mission to spread “relief, development, and peace in the name of Christ,” as described by Martin, lives on through ministries like SWAP and those who support them. “As odd as it sounds,” he says, “representing Jesus is our job.”