The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

November 9, 2013

Outreach: Africa

Local churches reach out to Africa

BY MARY WICOFF mwicoff@dancomnews.com
The Commercial-News

---- — United Methodist churches in the area are busy with projects on the local level, but members still find the energy and resources to reach out to Africa.

A group of churches from Danville and Catlin has formed the Popcorn Cluster mission to Liberia to help rebuild a church, give scholarships and donate to pastors’ aid. The Popcorn Cluster — which gets its name from somebody saying “things are popping all over” — includes St. James United Methodist, Batestown-Union Corner, Catlin United Methodist, First United Methodist, Bowman Avenue and Farmers Chapel.

“You don’t have to have a large church to have a mission,” said the Rev. Randy Robinson, lead pastor at St. James. “You just have to have passion.”

The local churches have that passion to help others, he said — not only in their own backyard, but in other countries. Some of the churches in the cluster are small, but they’re doing what they can to help.

Robinson has been speaking to local clubs about the mission, and, without being asked, people have offered to help. Community members may help by making donations, praying or going on the next overseas trip in January 2015, he said.

One goal is to raise $18,000 to rebuild St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Liberia, with all cluster churches chipping in.

With just 60 members, the Bowman Avenue United Methodist Church has already collected about $2,000 of its $3,000 share, the Rev. Jim Williams, pastor, said.

“Everybody is excited about this project,” he said. “We are very supportive of this.”

Church members have always been open to projects to help others, including the Fair Hope Children’s Ministry on church property. “These folks enjoy doing things,” he said.

When Robinson came to Danville as pastor two years ago, he was already involved in the Liberia project. In 2006, the bishop in Springfield asked four people to go to Liberia to see if a partnership was feasible.

Robinson was serving in Jacksonville at the time, and agreed to go on the 10-day trip.

By 2006, Liberia was still recovering from 14 years of civil war; the war ended in 2003. During the war, the United Methodist Church stayed behind to help the people, while other groups were fleeing.

“We remained a healing presence in the midst of atrocities,” he said.

As a result, the Methodist Church has a good reputation among the Liberians, who welcomed the Americans.

During that trip, the visitors learned that there were three main needs: educational scholarships for children, reconstruction of churches destroyed or damaged during the war and salary support for the pastors.

The Popcorn Cluster is focusing on St. Paul’s about 50 miles outside the capital city; construction was started before the war, but was halted during the war and never completed. Despite the bullet holes in the outside walls and its badly neglected condition, Methodists still gather to worship there every Sunday.

The local churches have raised about $11,000 of the needed $18,000, and expect to have the full amount by Easter. The money will be sent in increments, and the Liberians will send photos as the work progresses.

By January 2015 — when St. James takes its next trip — they hope to see a finished church. If construction is delayed, the visitors will help complete it.

If the church is completed, then the Americans will help renovate an orphanage built in 2000, which is need of repairs.

Robinson has been on five trips to Liberia. This past January, a group of Methodist church members from St. Louis and east central Illinois, including seven from St. James, went to Liberia to start construction on a school.

As for the scholarships, St. James held a progressive dinner on Lake Vermilion recently to raise funds. Some of the proceeds will go to scholarships and some to putting in water wells.

“The need is just so overwhelming,” Robinson said. “We could be in partnership with Liberia for 100 years and there would still be a need.”

Donations for pastors’ salaries in Liberia have fallen off a bit, but Robinson hopes to revive that soon.

The church also raised $10,000 a year ago to buy bed nets as part of the Imagine No Malaria global program. The church took monthly offerings, taking in more than $500 every month, until the $10,000 was raised.

While some people might criticize churches for adopting overseas missions when there’s so much to do locally, Robinson was quick to note that St. James parishioners are passionate about helping locally. For example, the church helped build a Habitat for Humanity house, and its food pantry feeds 425 families every month. Recently, the church had a clothing give-away.

The youth group has been on missions to Memphis and Detroit in the past.

“This congregation has demonstrated its ongoing commitment to the welfare of the community,” he said.

When he came on as pastor, it was his goal to see missions both locally and globally. “God so loved the world … and that includes Danville and Liberia and Haiti and Honduras,” he said.

Anyone from the community is invited to go on the trip in January 2015; however, there is a limit of 15 people locally. The Illinois United Methodist conference takes three trips a year — in October/November, summer and January/February — so, if the local group is full, people may consider going on one of those missions.

To help Donations are accepted through St. James United Methodist Church, 504 N. Vermilion St. On the memo line of your check, note it's for Liberia and indicate whether the money should go -- church reconstruction or water wells. You also may call the church at 442-1504 or visit its website, www.stjames-umc.com.