In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays for his disciples shortly before his arrest and crucifixion, saying, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”
The Life Center, an Eastern District Conference congregation in Lenoir, North Carolina, is working to fulfill this call to unity by partnering with area churches to meet needs and serve the surrounding community.
Pastor Terry Hunt says that partnership with other churches has been a longtime priority for The Life Center.
“The Life Center has always been an outreach ministry church,” Hunt says. “We wanted to reach across denominational lines and not let that be a tool of the enemy to separate us. We wanted to break down barriers or walls that kept Christians from coming together.”
In the past year, The Life Center has been involved with several large collaborative events that were kickstarted by Jeff Burkhimer, senior pastor at Mountain Grove Church in nearby Granite Falls.
“It’s always been a passion of mine to want to see churches of different denominations and races come together in unity because it’s not been my experience that that happens,” Burkhimer says. “It’s been my experience that there’s competition.”
When he began a new role at Mountain Grove as senior pastor in January 2020, Burkhimer saw it as an opportunity to focus on pursuing this passion.
“Unity is at the very heart of Jesus’ message,” Burkhimer says, referencing the passage in John. “My heart is for folks who feel like they don’t belong anywhere, especially don’t belong in our church. I spend a lot of time with folks outside the church and the number one complaint I get is, you guys can’t get along with each other, why would I want to be a part of that?”
So Burkhimer began thinking about ways to collaborate with other churches in Caldwell County to serve their community together.
“If the community saw not only that we can work together, but we care about them, maybe it can make a dent in that philosophy and break down some of those walls,” Burkhimer says.
Unity among believers
After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 and the resulting protests across the country, Burkhimer reached out to Hunt. The pastors met and discussed how they and their congregations, as fellow believers, should respond.
“We wanted to work together as churches so that not only the Christian community could see what we should be doing during this time period but also the unsaved community, unbelievers, when they see people that don’t look alike are willing to say, we are still brothers, we have the same heavenly Father,” Hunt says.
Burkhimer then connected with Carrie Foddrell, who, along with her husband, Darrin, is an associate pastor and co-youth pastor at The Life Center. The collaboration effort quickly grew as other churches throughout the county began showing interest in partnering for ministry events as well.
“Other churches saw it and wanted to be a part, which was super encouraging because it really dispelled the myths that I had in my mind,” Burkhimer says. “There were other churches that wanted this all along.”
In the midst of racial tension, discussions about police brutality, a pandemic and a divisive election season, leaders from these churches gathered together to discuss ways to demonstrate unity among believers while meeting practical needs in the county.
“You can see how the whole community would be divided unless people intentionally sought the Lord for ways to harmonize and to unite the community,” Foddrell says. “We wanted people to see that even in the midst of chaos, even in the midst of killings, even in the midst of racial disparities…we’re still understanding the purpose of the church—it’s the house of refuge for all people.”
Like churches across the nation, The Life Center and its partner churches have wrestled with how to continue fulfilling the mission of Christ during a global pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, The Life Center would provide transportation for students to the church building on Wednesday nights, where youth workers would serve them through personal conversations, a meal, biblical teaching and help with homework.
The pandemic forced the Foddrells to come up with alternatives to in-person interaction with students for a time, such as texting, social media, video calls and dropping off notes and balloons at families’ homes.
Foddrell says they had to get creative in answering the question, “How are we going to minister the Word of God to these families and let them grasp hold of hope and know that Jesus loves them?”
When leaders from the partner churches began meeting last year to discuss ideas for collaborative ministry events, they considered how they might build events around upcoming holidays.
In October, the churches came together to put on a “Great Candy Parade” on the day before Halloween. The churches collected donations of candy ahead of time, and then set up tables in the parking lot of the Old Lenoir Mall for a drive-through event, complete with music, costumes and police assistance.
“It was just phenomenal,” Foddrell says.
The event was set to begin at 7 p.m., but Foddrell says they ended up starting an hour early because traffic had already begun to back up on the surrounding streets. More than 100 volunteers from five different churches assisted with the event, and nearly 800 cars drove through.
Meeting needs together
Fallout from the pandemic such as school shutdowns and increased rates of unemployment and homelessness have greatly affected communities across the nation, including in Caldwell County, particularly in the area of food insecurity. This led the partner churches to develop the idea for the Thanksgiving “GreatFULL” Bag Giveaway.
The churches collected donations of food, enough to fill 500 grocery bags with a full Thanksgiving meal for a four-person family. Volunteers gathered at Hudson First Baptist Church to put together the bags, which were handed out Nov. 19, 2020, to families drive-through style.
As winter set in, the churches turned their focus to clothing donations. In early December, volunteers collected and sorted more than 3,500 coats, hats, gloves and other articles of winter clothing. These items were then donated to South Caldwell Christian Ministries in Granite Falls and Yokefellow of Caldwell County, a crisis ministry in Lenoir.
In January of this year, with COVID-19 cases in the area rising, Samaritan’s Purse opened an emergency field hospital in Lenoir at the site of Caldwell Memorial Hospital. The mobile respiratory unit was in operation from Jan. 7 to Feb. 3 and served five regional healthcare systems.
Members of the partner churches gathered at the field hospital Jan. 6 with signs of encouragement for the medical staff and received a tour before the unit opened.
“The idea behind that was for us to come together, pray for our healthcare workers, pray for the team from Samaritan’s Purse, let them know that we’re supporting them,” Foddrell says.
Church members also donated meals and snacks to healthcare workers throughout the month.
Continuing to bridge the divide
Burkhimer is excited to see the friendships formed between members of the different partner churches. He says they purposefully blend volunteers from different churches together when they assign tasks at each event.
“It’s been incredible,” says Burkhimer. “We’ve made some of the best friendships and relationships, definitely the best relationships I’ve had in the church world in my 25 years of doing this.”
Both Hunt and Foddrell also emphasize the value of churches pooling resources as a way to better serve their communities.
The church leaders have continued to meet together in 2021 to brainstorm ideas for future events and plan to continue the partnership in an ongoing effort to serve Caldwell County.
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Blue Springs, Missouri. She and her husband, Joel, are both graduates of Tabor College. The couple has three children.