Churches partner with UCC's human service ministries to work for good

Churches partner with UCC's human service ministries to work for good

June 30, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

The UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) is comprised of 80 corporate members, all affiliated with the UCC, that operate 357 facilities and programs providing health care, services to children, services to people with disabilities, and services to the aging. To find a CHHSM ministry near you, visit

Vital church at center of Tennessee's Uplands Retirement Village

The picturesque Cumberland Plateau is home to UCCrelated Uplands Retirement Village in Pleasant Hill, Tenn., a 500-acre campus that offers a wide variety of living accommodations for its residents: homes, condominiums, rental apartments, assisted living facilities and a nursing home. And in the middle of the Uplands community is Pleasant Hill Community UCC.

Although the retirement village and the church are separate entities, their histories are undeniably intermeshed. The church, founded in 1885, was started by a Congregational minister who also started the Pleasant Hill Academy, a school for Appalachian children. The church and the school grew together.

When the Rev. Ed Wharton, a subsequent principal of the Academy, died in 1920, his wife, May Wharton, M.D., remained, becoming the doctor for the families living in the area. Chronicled in her autobiography, "Doctor Woman of the Cumberlands," [published by Uplands Retirement Village], Wharton doctored to families tirelessly, often traveling on foot or on horseback to care for the sick at all hours of day and night.

Although the school no longer exists, Dr. Wharton's commitment to care resulted in the development of first a hospital, then the Uplands Retirement Village.

The Rev. Tom Warren, pastor of Pleasant Hill UCC, says of its 244 members, about 80 percent of them are Uplands residents. That, he says, creates a "synergism between the two."

"[Uplands] was originally started as a place for retiring missionaries to come after they came back from overseas," explains Warren. "Now, we have all kinds of people who live here, but we have a majority who are deeply church-related folk."

Warren says many retired clergy and retired missionaries come to live at Uplands, and many of them attend worship at Warren's church. The result is a church that is very committed to mission and outreach.

"Our church members have their fingers in almost everything, in terms of community service to the county," says Warren.

The church offers guest speakers, book studies, musical offerings, and simulcasts worship services to the Assisted Living House and the nursing home at Uplands.

Warren serves as chaplain for Uplands and holds weekly services in Wharton Nursing Home.

This spring, Pleasant Hill UCC was awarded the 2006 Congregational Stewardship Award by the UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries, recognizing the church for its longstanding relationship with the Uplands Retirement Village.

Warren says that Pleasant Hill Community UCC has the "pleasant dilemma" of having outgrown its current facilities. But with congregants that are so mission and justice oriented, raising funds for a new building takes a backseat to the more pressing issues around them.

"Appalachian poverty is very real here," notes Warren. "So many of our members feel we need to focus on doing more to reach out to the locals."

In the meantime, Pleasant Hill UCC will continue to thrive. "On Sunday morning, our sanctuary is literally packed to the gills," says Warren, noting that chairs had to be set up in the aisles even on the Sunday following Christmas, a week notorious for low church attendance.

"This place is filled with church members who know what church is, who love church, who never miss," he says.

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Ohio church provides comfort, hospitality for the homeless

Beth and Chris Karr, members of Plymouth UCC in Shaker Heights, Ohio, are co-coordinators for the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cleveland. The husband and wife team got involved in 1998 when the Cleveland chapter of IHN was started, and have watched it grow from eight participating congregations to 60 congregations and 3,000 active and trained volunteers.

IHN Greater Cleveland is funded by Cleveland's Deaconess Foundation, a member of the UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries. It serves homeless people, specifically families: couples, mothers or fathers, with at least one child.

Beth Karr points out that allowing families to stay together makes IHN unique. "In a lot of shelters," she explains, "men or boys who are over the age of 13 have to stay in a men's shelter. If you're a single Mom with a 13 year-old son, [you'd be separated]," she says.

Plymouth UCC acts as a host church for IHN three or four weeks every year. Families who are homeless stay at the church from evening until morning for a week. "We feed them dinner, provide activity in the evening, provide as home-like an experience as we can," says Karr. At 7 each morning, a van picks them up and takes them to a nearby day center, where families have resources available to them to help get back on their feet. The day center is equipped with showers and laundry facilities and staffed with a full-time social worker to assist with employment, housing or other services.

Plymouth UCC converts Sunday School classrooms into bedrooms for the families, and a large classroom becomes a dining and entertainment room where there is a TV, snacks and activities. During a host week, the Karrs oversee a total of 55 volunteers who help with meals, set up, clean up and hosting responsibilities.

"The thing that makes our program special is the emphasis on hospitality," says Karr. "There is training for the volunteers, but it simply boils down to being a caring person, wanting these people who are going through a stressful period in their life to feel comfortable and welcome."

Karr believes being a host church for IHN is one of the best things the church has ever done. "I think it's really helped people in the congregation to realize that homeless people are just like you and me. They just don't have a home. They're deserving of our care and concern."

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Southern California - Nevada Conference enjoys close ties to CHHSM ministries

Peppermint Ridge in Corona, Calif., is a CHHSM-affiliated program for people with developmental needs. Mary Jeffery, member of Corona's First Congregational UCC, remembers when she and her husband, Robert, built a home for their family of two daughters and a son with developmental needs.

When the Jefferys began caring for six additional boys with developmental disabilities, they realized that their type of residential care was a sought-after service -not to replace family, but to extend it with warmth, energy and compassion.

Today, the Peppermint Ridge community has expanded to five homes at its main campus in Corona with an additional six-resident home and one 12-resident home elsewhere in the town of Corona. The program provides training and support for over 100 people.

Mary Jeffery looks back fondly on the support she felt from the UCC. "They had a big part in getting Peppermint Ridge off the ground," Jeffery says of the UCC's Southern California - Nevada Conference. "Practically all the churches contributed toward the construction costs."

Since then, says Jeffery, the SCNC has continued to contribute annually to Peppermint Ridge's operating budget.

"Peppermint Ridge has always been connected relationally with many of our congregations," says the Rev. Jane Heckles, Conference Co-Minister. The Rejoicers, a singing group of Peppermint Ridge residents, often perform at local church services or at annual gatherings. And at SCNC's camp, Pilgrim Pines in Yucaipa, Calif., the Peppermint Ridge residents are a perennial part of the summer camping programming.

But besides Peppermint Ridge, Heckles adds that her Conference is committed to supporting other CHHSM ministries. SCNC enjoys longstanding relationships with Pilgrim Place, a retirement community for Christian professionals in Claremont, Calif., where many former clergy, missionaries and church workers have retired. And the Retirement Housing Foundation (RHF), which Heckles refers to as a "powerhouse of an organization," has helped to build and manage several housing efforts in association with local UCC churches.

Based in Long Beach, Calif., RHF is one of the nation's largest non-profit providers of housing and services for older adults, persons with disabilities and economically disadvantaged families.

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