COFUMC—’04 Charge Conference Speech

Prompt: Where have lives been transformed this past year at COF?

When I was asked to speak this evening about where lives have been transformed by Community of Faith, the first thing that popped into my head was a house in Petersburg, Virginia.

Many of you are surely aware that this church has been sending teams to work with the Petersburg Urban Ministries over the last year or two—seven trips so far, I believe—and I’ve had the opportunity to go on three of those trips.

Petersburg is one of the more economically disadvantaged parts of this state. Unemployment rates are high; home ownership rates are low. There’s a lot of drug use; a lot of vacant lots; a lot of houses that have fallen into such disrepair that they are no longer suitable for occupation. In the part of Petersburg where the Urban Ministry is located, the high school dropout rate hovers near eighty percent.

In other words, Petersburg is a place where it is easy to be hopeless.

The Petersburg Urban Ministry, which is a project of the United Methodist Church, works to combat that hopelessness. They provide GED training, teach computer skills, and they provide affordable, safe, quality housing for people of limited income.

The way they provide that housing is that they purchase vacant homes in the area, and then participants in the Ministry’s programs and volunteers like us fix them up.

Well, the first time I joined volunteers from Community of Faith on a trip to Petersburg, I had no idea what I’d gotten myself in to. We pulled up in front of a house that was, well, almost beyond description. It was ugly, run down, and almost completely gutted. Standing in the front doorway, you could look clear through the back windows.

We did a lot of good work on that house—digging for a foundation on an addition, building a railing on the back deck, and more—but at the end of the day I still had trouble imagining it being habitable—being a HOME. I am a certifiable cynic, and on the way back here from Petersburg I couldn’t help but wonder if what we had done had really made a difference for anybody.

Earlier this month, I joined members of our congregation for my third trip to Petersburg. Luckily, the people at the Ministry figured out that I’m a computer guy, and it’s been my job the last two trips to repair and tune-up the computers they use for their work and for their training programs—and I assure you, I’m much more effective with a keyboard and mouse than I am with a power-saw and a nail gun. It’s probably safer for the people around me too.

But in the middle of the day, we all went on a little tour of houses the Ministry has worked on. Among them was the one I had helped with on my first trip. Let me tell you, I could hardly believe my eyes.

The run down, dilapidated, ugly, uninhabitable house was no more—where it stood was a beautiful two-bedroom HOME. It still wasn’t quite finished, but walking through it, I was totally in awe at what wonderful work the Ministry—with this congregation’s help—had done.

Somebody is going to live in that house before too long—possibly somebody who has never owned a home before. We, as a church, helped make it possible for a family to have a nice place to live. Think about that for a minute. Think about how powerful a gift that is. Think about how that is going to transform lives.

Then think about this—that’s just one project among many that we have supported just at the Petersburg Urban Ministry. And the Petersburg Urban Ministry is just one mission group among many that we support. And mission work is just one among many different ways that Community of Faith works to change lives for the better.

I have no doubt that almost every day, somebody involved with this church observes a transformation as drastic and powerful as what happened to that one little house in Petersburg. It might be in a family who gets a meal through the food pantry, or a young person who finds fellowship in our youth group, or in a member of one of the scouting organizations sponsored by the church, or in somebody who visits us one Sunday just to see what this whole Christianity thing is all about and finds a welcoming spiritual community that they feel like they can call home.

My challenge in writing this little speech was that I rarely get to see first-hand the lives that Community of Faith transforms, or I’m not aware of the transformation. Sometimes—like right after that first trip I took to Petersburg—I wonder how much of a difference these mission trips and everything are really making. But then I think about that one house and the huge difference in one life, or one family’s life, that it is going to make. Then I think about how tiny that is compared to the collective work that this church does.

When I saw that house transformed, in a way it transformed me—it chipped away at my cynicism and added to my faith.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.