Standing in the parking lot of what used to be Mount Olive Baptist — a very rural church — Craig Carlisle knew he was a long way from a grocery store.
But he felt the weight of that distance even more when three senior adult women in a borrowed car rolled up in need of food.
“They had borrowed a car just to get there,” said Carlisle, director of missions for Etowah Baptist Association. “In this rural area, there’s a lack of transportation, and it’s a food desert too.”
The western fringes of Etowah County — the Altoona and Walnut Grove communities — are “almost like a wilderness, in some regards,” he said. The area is bookended by Dollar General stores, and it’s an even longer way to a Walmart or supermarket, especially when you don’t have a car.
Bringing help closer
That’s why, when Mount Olive Baptist voted to close its doors earlier this year, it didn’t take Carlisle long to come up with an idea for the building — the Mount Olive Missions Center, an annex of the association’s already existing center.
“Coming 20 to 25 miles to the association’s ministry center is prohibitive for them,” he said. “The Lord has given us an opportunity to get a presence out there.”
And on July 30, they had their first food distribution — that’s where Carlisle met the women in the borrowed car. He and Emily Hamilton, the association’s compassion ministry director, and other volunteers made other connections that day too.
“We were able to minister to nine families who needed food and one little boy who needed underwear,” Carlisle said. “Underwear and socks are one of the greatest needs for children out here.”
Food is too, just like with the adults. The elementary school in the area is one of the poorest in the country, he said — the percentage of children on free or reduced lunches is in the 90-plus percent range.
“One of the greatest ways we hope to connect is with the children,” Carlisle said.
Hamilton said she’s excited about the opportunity to get to know the area and figure out how best to meet needs there.
“This is an incredibly rural area,” she said. “Getting to work through what that’s going to look like and who the people resources are — that’s been a fun and challenging adventure we’re still trying to figure out.”
But churches in the area are on board, Carlisle said — from the very beginning of the idea he met with pastors there to see how they could best partner together.
Having their members help out with the ministry center also provides the churches with a new way to get involved in their own community.
Hamilton said getting to work together with them is a blessing.
“I’m really excited to see how all those pieces come together and see the body of Christ work together in the community,” she said. “Our ministry focus right now as an association is ‘this is my neighborhood,’ and this is one way we can equip these small, rural churches to meet the needs right around them. It’s a really crucial opportunity.”
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