Shirley Townsend-Jones, the Church and Community Worker missionary with the Bennettsville-Cheraw Area Cooperative Ministry (BCACM) in South Carolina, grew up on her family’s farm in North Carolina. It was a time and place when seeds of caring and generosity were planted and grown in the family, just as the seeds they planted in the soil produced abundant and nourishing food.
“We were always reaching out with produce and whatever we had, trying to help other people,” Townsend-Jones recalled. “That became part of our lives, helping to meet the needs of people in the community.”
Living in a rural, African American community, she said the church was at the heart of social activity: “People worked all week, and when the weekend came, that’s what you looked forward to – meeting people, hearing the word of God and socializing. We were always involved and working at the church.”
Today, Townsend-Jones is still helping to meet the needs of people in rural communities, and, following God’s call, the church has become the heart of her life’s work. In 1981, she worked as a Church and Community Worker with the Black Church and Community Development Program in the Rockingham District (now the Gateway District) in the North Carolina Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. In 1991, she transitioned to work with the BCACM in South Carolina.
Life in a rural cooperative ministry
The BCACM is made up of nine United Methodist churches in the Marlboro and Chesterfield counties of South Carolina. All of them are in rural communities of the Marion and Hartsville districts of the conference, and all have predominately African-American membership, with a total cooperative membership of about 2,700. Five of the churches form two parishes, Bennettsville and Cheraw, one is a two-point charge and the other two are stationary churches, for a total of five pastors.
The pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Bennettsville, the Rev. Judith Knox, serves as the director on the cooperative ministry; but Townsend-Jones is the glue that holds it all together. She’s traveled across the 96-mile radius of the cooperative ministry many times, visiting each church, attending mission events, youth events, work team projects, celebrations, community meetings and whatever else they have going on. Often it is her job to connect with leaders and laypeople in all the churches as well as with community organizations and coalitions to bring everyone together to have a bigger impact in the ministries they choose to do.
Transportation, for example, has always been an issue in this rural area, and BCACM is raising funds for a new bus to continue to support the ministry.
The cooperative ministry works to strengthen its churches in outreach, witness, service, Christian education and leadership development. Each church sends representatives to the BCACM council, which meets every other month and oversees the cooperative ministry. Financial support comes from the churches in the cooperative and the South Carolina Conference. Together, the churches have formed a mass choir to offer a music ministry. In a normal year, the cooperative provides workshops and learning labs, worship services, vacation Bible school, leadership training and other ministries for its members, but some of this activity currently happens online because of the pandemic.
BCACM supports two mentoring ministries: Ladies of the Future for young women, and Project M.E.N, (Mentoring, Education and Nurturing) for young men. The women’s group was created at a time when the teen pregnancy rate was rising. The group usually meets once a month and helps teens deal with issues affecting their lives.
Project M.E.N. was embraced by the men of the BCACM to help young African American men focus on God’s purpose for their lives and to navigate the racism and discrimination they encounter. Bennettsville, as the county seat, has both a state and federal prison. “I tell them, that’s all the more reason we need to guide young men in our community, so they can be productive and not end up in those prisons right in our back yard,” Townsend-Jones said.
The physical gatherings for the young people, children and older adults have stopped for the time being. For Townsend-Jones, this has been a difficult impact of the pandemic. “You just hate to see it happen,” she said. “But for protection, we have to lay low with those ministries. The leaders find ways to check-in with the kids, youth and laypeople.”
Rolling with the punches
The coronavirus pandemic has challenged the mission ministry, with members of the churches and the communities laid-off from work, seniors losing some of their support networks and schools closed. The churches have sought to help all people in need, not just members. Townsend-Jones affirms that, as a unified body of believers making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, the ministry does not discriminate.
In partnership with another agency seeking to reach the most vulnerable people in the community, BCACM has been asked to identify at-risk seniors and families in their communities who need assitance. The cooperative ministry has also contributed to other food drives and food delivery programs. Some of the BCACM churches have gardens, and Townsend-Jones hopes to work with them to create more gardens, so neighbors can garden and harvest fresh food for their families.
Various churches and members have taken part in Black Lives Matter marches in their towns. A local church organized a march in Bennettsville that some members from the cooperative participated in, but Townsend-Jones’ emphasis is on getting people registered to vote. She thinks every march ought to include a voter registration table.
The racial tension combined with hardships caused by the pandemic have affected the way BCACM does its ministry, but Townsend-Jones holds a deeper, spiritual perspective on how to proceed.
“We learn to roll with the punches,” she said. “We miss seeing one another, but this is a new day, a new plan God has for us. We just do what we need to do to stay safe. God will do the rest.”
Christie R. House is a writer and editor consultant with Global Ministries.
The following churches comprise the Bennettsville-Cheraw Area Cooperative Parish: Aaron Temple UMC, Bethel UMC, Ebenezer UMC, Level Green UMC, Mount Zion UMC, Shiloh UMC, Smyrna UMC, Saint Michael UMC, and Trinity UMC.