BISHOP, Va. -- Christmas came early in Bishop, Virginia.
It started with checks that came in the mail and online donations arriving through the Holston Conference website.
The holiday spirit came early when a woman in Abingdon donated 360 pounds of beef, or half of a large cow. Christmas came early in trucks “filled to the brim” with food and boxes of clothing.
“We are like kids at Christmas,” says the Rev. Daniel Bradley, pastor at Alexander Memorial United Methodist Church. “We knew God was moving, but we didn’t know God was moving so quickly.”
A year ago, Bradley went to his district superintendent with only $56 in the banking account, afraid his church would soon be closed. Today, Alexander Memorial is at the center of a new mission initiative that has won the hearts of people in Holston Conference and as far away as Texas and California.
About $40,000 in cash donations alone have been received from about 140 donors to help the tiny congregation feed and care for its struggling community. Most donations arrived within the last two months.
“In the midst of a pandemic, people have been generous beyond anything we could imagine,” says the Rev. Jane Taylor, Clinch Mountain District superintendent in the Holston Conference. “What we’re seeing is a miracle.”
Meanwhile, the "Bread of Life" ministry that served 40 people earlier this year has quadrupled in size and need. Yesterday, Bradley and his small crew of volunteers prepared and delivered 160 Thanksgiving dinners for a community with a population of about 500.
A Sept. 12 story in the Holston newsletter, The Call, explained how families in Bishop have been devastated by coal-mine closures, flood damage, addiction, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although other communities in Tazewell County also struggle with poverty and addiction, the Bishop community, which straddles the Virginia and West Virginia line, has the added disadvantage of geographic isolation, residents say.
To get to any job, store, school, or doctor’s office, people in Bishop have to drive at least 45 minutes across mountain ranges in every direction, regardless if they own vehicles.
“These people have been forgotten here,” Bradley said in the Sept. 12 article. “They’re really good people, but some of them are hooked on bad things. They like to know they’re important. And we are overwhelmed because it takes so much to feed so many.”
Taylor had already been working with Bradley to save the church that was trying to save a community. When the written story was shared through United Methodist News Service and social media, the floodgates opened and donations rolled in.
Pleasant View United Methodist Church in Abingdon, Virginia, took a special offering for Alexander Memorial, collecting $2,933. At least 15 other United Methodist churches in Tennessee, Virginia, and Maryland also sent financial donations, in amounts ranging from $45 to $2,000.
Individuals as well as businesses sent money, including many pastors. The Holston Foundation delivered a $2,000 grant. Church members personally drove miles across mountains to deliver food, supplies and equipment.
Conley Underwood drove 175 miles to deliver more than 1,000 pounds of canned beans and tomatoes, 70 pounds of frozen grass-fed hamburger meat, and utensils and containers.
“Daniel said it would be enough for eight chili meals,” said Underwood, a member of Trentville United Methodist Church in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee. “At one time much of our [family] business was from the coal industry, so I know how much they are hurting.”
Helpers also came out of the woodwork to implement Bradley’s ideas for ministering to his community. The Rev. James Bennington of First United Methodist Church in Marion, Virginia, stepped up to help Bradley create a Celebrate Recovery ministry, projected to launch in fall 2021. The Rev. Harry Howe of Project Crossroads went to Bishop to consult on making repairs to the Alexander Memorial building and converting nearby Brown’s Chapel United Methodist into a shelter and mission center.
Some of the best news of all came with aid from Holston Conference congregational development funds, said Taylor. Until November 1, Bradley served as a bi-vocational local pastor, balancing a full-time job as a van driver along with leading three churches.
Today, he’s a full-time local pastor for Alexander Memorial, Brown’s Chapel, and Mt. Hermon United Methodist Churches. The Holston Board of Pensions and Health Benefits also provided assistance to make the transition to full time happen.
“I have been blessed more than I ever deserve,” Bradley said. “This allows me to focus on the souls in our community.”
A new plan has emerged to serve 40 children in the families currently participating in the weekly meal ministry. In summer 2021, Bradley and church leaders hope to hire two teachers for a tutoring program. The summer program would kick off with a week of Holston’s Camp in the Community and then continue two days a week, with two meals a day.
“There are other programs similar to this in other counties, but our children haven’t had the opportunity because of lack of transportation,” Bradley said. “Our children need to feel just as important, and we’re trying to show them that people care.”
One of the Bishop Mission Initiative’s most pressing needs is a van to transport the children for the tutoring program. Bradley also seeks construction aid to take care of much-needed improvements and building deterioration which threaten the church’s future.
The Alexander congregation is trying to develop a long-term fundraiser, such as making and selling apple butter, to help fund the building repairs as well the feeding, tutoring and recovery ministries.
“This thing has happened so quickly, and all we can say is that God has been involved and be thankful,” Bradley said. “But we don’t want to get caught with our hands in our pockets. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Bradley frequently finds himself wiping away tears of gratitude for all that’s happened, just as his dedicated church volunteers often do. “We can breathe now,” he says. “That weight has been lifted because of people reaching out.”
The pastor is even more moved by appreciation shown in the community where one church with about 30 members is making a difference. Everywhere he goes, people stop him to say, “We can’t thank you all enough.”
“It’s overwhelming in a good way,” he says. “As bad as 2020 has been for everybody, we’ve seen God move as only God can.”
To give by mail: Make checks out to “Alexander Memorial UMC” and mail to: P.O. Box 39, Bishop, VA 24604-0039. To give online: Visit Holston.org. Alexander Memorial UMC is located in the Clinch Mountain District. Clothing is not needed at this time.
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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