By Jeff Brumley
Mary Cate Jones never doubted her congregation would help when it learned she faced a foreclosure crisis last month. But raising $35,000 in the last two weeks of May and finding a donor to match the rest?
The 78-year-old widow never saw that one coming — not even from her beloved First Baptist Church of Knoxville, Tenn. “It’s more than one can comprehend sometimes,” Jones said about the home she and her late husband built in 1956.
The timing couldn’t be better, she said, because payment on her $60,000 reverse mortgage was past due and June 15 was the targeted eviction date. “It’s remarkable what people will do when they see a need.”
Cutting the red tape
The feat was made possible by Heart of Knoxville, a non-profit organization established by the church in 2009 to “meet human need,” Senior Pastor Bill Shiell said.
The 501(c)3 enables the church to raise funds from corporate donors and individuals otherwise uncomfortable giving to churches, Shiell said. That helps the congregation extend its ministry outreach citywide without exhausting the church’s budget, staff and regular cadre of volunteers.
“We can respond quickly without a lot of red tape,” Shiell said.
Non-profits widen influence
First Baptist, Knoxville’s, experience is increasingly common as churches become more community-focused, said Bob Lupton, an Atlanta-based author and consultant in the Christian community development movement.
“One of the encouraging things is that churches are starting to become more outreach-oriented than they have been in the past few decades,” Lupton said.
And as they do so, they are discovering the need to create non-profits through which their ministries can operate. Such organizations provide administrative flexibility and wider fund-raising opportunities they provide.
As a result, a church’s or ministry’s influence is widened, Lupton said.
That’s how it’s starting to feel at Heart of Knoxville, said Jon Roach, a First Baptist member and chairman of the non-profit’s board of directors.
Before Mary Cate Jones’ eviction crisis became known to the church, Heart of Knoxville had been focused on creating food co-ops for low-income Knoxvillians and financing an annual Christmas dinner for the poor, he said.
“We have looked at other avenues to be of service to start meeting human needs, but this opportunity presented itself and it got rolling rather rapidly.”
The organization has also gotten onto the city’s radar in a big way thanks to local media coverage of Mary Cate Jones’ plight. Those stories, which mentioned the church and the non-profit as conduits for aid, made donors aware of the issue and how to help.
Roach said he hopes people across Knoxville will remember the faith-based non-profit when other challenges arise. “We want to take advantage of opportunities to assist,” he said. “It just happened that these folks we are assisting are church members.”
‘A great thing they have done’
One of those members is Mary’s son Kenny Jones, who lives in the home with his two teenage children.
Kenny Jones has been the beneficiary of church help before. A few months ago First Baptist members built a deck and wheelchair ramp for him because he suffers from the after-effects of childhood polio.
But Jones said he didn’t know about Heart of Knoxville’s existence until the family’s foreclosure crisis occurred.
While surprised, he said it’s in keeping with First Baptist’s reputation for taking action when necessary.
“This is one those situations where you need more than just prayers,” he said. “It’s a great thing they have done here.”