By Brett Hetherington*
The United Methodist Church is built on connections: connections within local congregations, connections within districts and conferences, and connections around the globe. Working together to advance the Kingdom of God here on earth is a hallmark of The UMC, and many times the Kingdom advances through meeting the physical needs of people.
House of the Carpenter is a community outreach organization supported by The United Methodist Church that holds several distinctions which make it unique. It’s located on the border of two conferences (East Ohio and West Virginia) and also sits on the boundary of two jurisdictions (North Central and Northeastern). One of the seven mission projects of the West Virginia Conference it is led by Executive Director the Rev. Mike Linger, an ordained Elder of the Conference, and Associate Director Pastor Michelle Lucarelli, a part-time local pastor who also serves Powhatan Point United Methodist Church and Amity United Methodist Church (Ohio Valley District) of the East Ohio Conference.
“We work with a lot of agencies here to meet people’s basic needs,” Lucarelli shared. Those needs are met through House of the Carpenter’s food pantry, thrift store, utility assistance programs, Christmas assistance program, backpack program for the elementary school, and several other outreach initiatives – all operated from facilities located on a land mass in the middle of the Ohio River.
“We have the uniqueness of being on an island where no one wants us,” Lucarelli joked. “We have a West Virginia ZIP Code but serve both sides of the river – and even some people in Pennsylvania!”
The island mirrors what has happened to the mainland that lines its river’s shores. A former desired destination for the area’s well-to-do, the island has fallen on hard times, and while there is still a pocket of wealth on the northern end, much of the island struggles with poverty. Lucarelli shared that before the extra COVID school meal benefits were extended to all students the island was already fully below the federal poverty guideline.
One of the connections that House of the Carpenter has been able to make with the East Ohio Conference recently was through its ramp-building program. “Our lead for the program is a 79-year-old engineer who retired from the Environmental Protection Agency,” Lucarelli said before sharing about the difficulty of building the ramps themselves.
“The island itself is in a flood plain. This brings in all sorts of special rules for construction, and these access ramps into peoples’ homes are no different. A permanent ramp needs to have posts dug four feet into the ground! But our guy was able to figure out how to craft temporary ramps that would allow us to bypass the flood rules and provide a much-needed blessing to someone who just needs to get into their home.”
Earlier this year Kim Fox – a healthy, active woman – fell ill and was hospitalized with no clear diagnosis. After three weeks in the hospital and around seven months in a local nursing home, she was able to be moved into a rehabilitation facility. “She started coming home for visits in late summer but couldn’t walk,” shared Joni Fox, Kim’s mother. “She disliked being with older people at nursing home and just wanted to come home. We ran into many obstacles but getting into the house was a major obstacle. We had to literally carry her in a wheelchair up the steps to her home. Sometimes we got the fire department if they were available or city workers or college friends. Once she was in the house she was confined to the house because it was difficult to get her up and down.”
Ultimately, she was able to recover well enough to return home, but due to complications she would need a ramp in order to access her house. “Everyone was too far away, and it was just the wrong time of year for people to really be available to help,” said Lucarelli. “So, I put out a call for help, and we had volunteers from both Powhatan Point and Amity, as well as from two UMC churches in West Virginia come together to build a ramp for this family. And they did it in one day!”
The group left quite an impression on Fox and her family as well. “They worked so well together. Our neighbor asked us who these men were because she never saw a team work so well together. The women from the church prepared a lunch for the men with dessert. It was amazing,” shared Joni.
Relaying her blessings through Joni, Kim shared “I don’t question why this happened to me. I know God has a plan. It is a blessing I can get out of the house, and I am out of the nursing home.” Joni’s husband added “I am so glad she’s home permanently I can take her more places and I am so thankful for the ramp and the people that helped build it and helped with the cost.”
House of the Carpenter also benefits from the connection of local United Methodist churches whose congregation members donate their time on a regular basis, some in the area regularly volunteering to serve in the food pantry. Others regularly donate clothing or goods.
Ohio Valley District Superintendent the Rev. Bruce Hitchcock said that people respond to the needs of the service ministry because they see the way its staff and volunteers care for others.
“Many Ohio Valley United Methodist congregations volunteer with, and financially support, the House of the Carpenter because of the authentic witness of the Risen Christ seen in the work of the House of the Carpenter. Here is a place where the hands and feet of Jesus are at work, and the voice of the Risen Christ can be heard with great joy,” he noted.
But what House of the Carpenter and these programs that this connection drives goes far deeper than just providing simple physical needs. Lucarelli and her team find themselves wrestling with the effects of generational poverty each and every day.
“We offer things like dance classes, guitar lessons, archery, art classes, cooking classes, golf and basketball camps for kids because these things build confidence,” she said. “These kids lack confidence. Many of them are living in poverty. Some of them are in families where parents have lost jobs and the jobs are slow coming back. Some are being raised by their grandparents. Drugs are a factor sometimes. We want to make sure children realize there is something other than this little world they are living in.”
Instead of passively watching others work, Lucarelli said it’s important for kids to be taught and to have hands-on experience doing the work.
“They have to have someone who is willing to awaken the drive within them and who is willing to support that drive to help them break out of this cycle,” she said.
House of the Carpenter has taken this philosophy and forged connections for the kids to help awaken and inspire hope. They are able to visit colleges and learn what careers are available to them. Technical trades are explored. They visit businesses and see first-hand what is available at the local level. The organization even has a connection with a local judge.
“There is a judge in Belmont County Drug Court who talks to them and invites them to ask questions and sit and observe his court. They get to see him praise people who are being successful, and they see people who have to face real consequences when they are not,” said Lucarelli. “They get to see there are many opportunities and there are no bad career paths for them. No job they choose is an unworthy one.”
Like all congregations and service ministries, House of the Carpenter has had to change the way it’s operated on a day-to-day basis during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that need to adapt has also modeled for the communities it serves what it takes to live and minister as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the world.
To learn more about House of the Carpenter you can visit their website at https://houseofthecarpenter.com/. If you feel called to donate to the work of House of the Carpenter you can do so by visiting https://umcmission.org/advance-project/391392/.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.