Hector, Arkansas -- "Our Jerusalem"
Two words: missions trip. What images come to mind?
Far away lands, destitute people, false gods, primitive conditions, hard labor?
Shane and Debbie Williams have been co-pastors of Hector (Arkansas) First Assembly of God for the past 5 1/2 years. Just prior to their arrival, the church had taken a missions trip to Ecuador. The Williams' first missions trip with the church took them to minister at an Indian reservation.
But as the church began preparing for its next missions trip, God had something else in mind.
"This church has had very successful missions trips," Shane Williams says, "but the more I prayed about this, the more I heard God saying 'home missions' and 'community service.'" Williams felt the Lord directing him to make Hector the focus of their missions efforts.
Williams prayed about this direction for months. He admits he was not excited about announcing this new focus to the congregation, which averages a surprising 240 (in a town of 500), as it seemed a fairly drastic departure from what the church was accustomed to.
"I announced the plan to make our community the focus of our next missions trip," Williams recalls, "and to my surprise, it was met with a round of applause! It was exactly the opposite response of what I expected. It was a God thing!"
That was 2013. On June 8-12, 2015, the church completed its second year of making Hector its missions focus.
"We treat the week just as if we were on a 'normal' missions trip," Williams says. "People take off work for the week, we eat breakfasts and lunches together at our fellowship hall -- just like we were away from home."
The church, with a core group of about 45 volunteers, had several projects scheduled ahead of time, with the majority being focused on assisting widows, the elderly, and families that couldn't afford to do any work on their own.
"We built a lot of wheelchair ramps and did a lot of painting," Williams says. "We also worked with the school to find children who might not have proper clothing. The ladies [of the church] go out and buy clothes for them and arrange a place where the kids and parents can pick those clothes up to try to help them out."
However, the missions effort to Hector is not "adult only." The youth and even children as young as 5 years old are also involved.
"We want to raise up mission-minded people," Shane explains, "so we had a children's group for ages 5-12 in addition to our youth group being involved."
Michelle Riley, one of the volunteers who led the children's group of about 10 youngsters, says the week was impacting on the kids and the community.
"We went around the community planting flowers at local businesses," Riley says. "If they had planters, we redid them with fresh flowers; if not, we made huge pots of flowers and delivered them to the business."
Riley says the kids also went to the local nursing home, visiting the elderly and passing out hugs and goodies; the boys also participated in window-washing while the girls baked brownies, placed them in bags decorated with Scripture verses, and went door-to-door handing them out.
"It was amazing," Riley says. "The kids were so eager to get out and work and local business owners were in awe of what they were doing. People are still talking about how hard the kids worked that week."
Youth Pastor Charlie McAlister and his wife Kayte have a similar story. Every day, about 20 youth volunteered their time to serve the community.
"We were in charge of cleaning up debris, lawn care, burning brush, trimming trees, and cleaning up people's yards," Charlie says. "We had a list of those with the greatest need, and got those taken care of first. Then we would just pull over to a yard that needed help and start working. It was a huge blessing to those people as they weren't expecting it . . . while we were working at one place, a few ladies just sat on their porch and cried in thankfulness. We didn't know them, we were just trying to show how much we love them through Christ."
McAlister says they try to ingrain in the teens' minds that it's better to serve than be served -- and this experience proved it. "The kids enjoyed doing the work as they knew they were working for the Kingdom," he says. "We're called to love people, and this week we encouraged and lifted the spirits of people in our community, but there's no doubt we received a greater blessing than the people we did the work for."
What began with Williams' trepidation in following God's lead has now become the heart of the church. He believes God worked in the hearts and lives of the congregation to prepare them to serve their "Jerusalem" (Acts 1:8). The church even has a volunteer who coordinates four fundraising teams in order to make the missions effort possible, raising $17,000 for the most recent effort.
"Making Hector our mission has changed the way the community views the local church," Williams says. "There used to be this feeling that the church wanted something from them. Now we're giving the church the opportunity to give something back. We have gained a lot of respect from the community and we're now looked on more as place they can lean on for help.
"Currently we're looking at expanding this ministry, so that in addition to the annual missions 'trip,' we'll do weekend events throughout the year," Williams says. "My wife and I are very blessed to pastor such a great congregation of people."
However, Williams admits there is one "good problem" with having a church full of eager missions volunteers: "Sometimes we have too many workers and not enough work for all of them to do!"