WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — You might say that Larry Hovis started his new job as the coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina in the fall of 2004 with a mission about missions. “From Day One,” he said in a recent interview, “I tried to start people thinking more about what we could and should be doing here in North Carolina.”
As a pastor, Hovis had been involved with CBF on the national and state level since the beginning of both organizations. He’d long been thinking, he said, that “in our missions area we were trying to do a lot of overseas missions but neglecting our own state.” Missions abroad are worthwhile, Hovis said, but he feared that too much emphasis farther away could mean that CBFNC was neglecting an important part of the CBF mission of serving “the most marginalized, the most neglected, the least evangelized.” There were plenty of people in North Carolina who fit that description, he believed. “National and larger CBF movements are looking at the rest of the country and the world, but none of them would take responsibility for North Carolina. That was our role,” Hovis said.
That’s not to say that Hovis wanted CBFNC churches and their members to do missions work exclusively in their home state. Many North Carolina churches had been participating, for example, in the national CBF’s Together for Hope initiative, a 20-year commitment to minister to the 20 poorest counties in the United States. Because Ben and Leonora Newell, the CBF missionaries in charge of the Hope partnership efforts in the area around Helena, Ark., have strong ties to Raleigh, North Carolina churches have been especially active in that effort. They continue to do so, through summer mission trips for youth and other activities. In fact, the Hope initiative helped shape Hovis’ thinking.
In light of CBF’s focus on rural poverty, and CBFNC’s desire to be more involved in North Carolina, “It seemed natural to mesh the two ideas and have a focus on rural poverty in our state. We may not have one of the 20 poorest counties in America here in North Carolina, but we have some awfully poor counties,” he said. One readily available indicator of that, he said, is the high percentage of children on free and reduced-price lunches in the schools in various areas. Hovis said he started “casting the vision” as soon as he took over at CBFNC. The missions coordinator position came open the next year, and he rewrote the job description to emphasize missions within the state.
When Linda Jones was hired to fill that job in March 2006, things really started coming together. “She has carried the mission forward,” Hovis said. Research came first. Jones worked to identify rural areas with high levels of poverty. Knowing that CBFNC would not have the resources to hire missionaries to go to these places, they looked for areas where CBF partner churches were already at work. North central North Carolina around Henderson, Littleton and Warren County fit the bill. In an area plagued by entrenched generational poverty, exacerbated by the decline in the textile industry, the needs were obvious. And several CBF-affiliated churches there were already coming together for worship and fellowship and “were praying and discerning how God might lead them to work with that ministry,” Hovis said.
It was all too easy for them to identify a lot of work that desperately needed to be done. When CBFNC invited people to that area for its first 2007 North Carolina Missions Initiative weekend, the turnout was almost too good. They had hoped for 200 people from across the state to register to participate; they had thought 300 would be wonderful. They got 500, and had to suggest other volunteer opportunities for another 150. Somehow, those 500 people and 130 volunteers from the local area came together to get a lot of work done.
Some tore down several dilapidated houses and cleared the area so new homes could be built. Some painted and repaired other houses, fixed sagging porches and handicap ramps, hauled away trash and built fences. Others prepared meals, and some ran a free carnival for local children. Later came a celebration of what they had accomplished together, and, on Sunday, they fanned out to worship with the congregations at local churches. That success led to requests from other communities to be part of a Missions Initiative weekend the next year. In early November 2008, people came from CBF-affiliated churches from across the state to partner with local folks to tackle projects in Rutherfordton in the southwestern part of the state and in mountainous Madison County north of Asheville.
Those who headed back to the Henderson area were thwarted by a major storm, and that work has been rescheduled for next month. Linda Jones is working now to narrow down the sites for this year’s missions weekend. Hovis said that the weekends have a number of benefits. Of course, that much labor really gets some sorely needed work done. Beyond that, he said, the effort “energized the people locally so that they could continue needed work on an ongoing local level. To know that they are not alone gives them hope.”
Some churches outside the local area have gone back on their own, organizing mission trips in addition to the big weekend. Knowing where to go and whom to work with makes such missions easier to organize. The weekends are designed to be family friendly, so they offer a good way for parents to teach by example and help their children learn about serving others. And the weekends help people learn to look at poverty with new eyes, so that they see things when they go back to their own communities that they and their churches should be tackling, he said. Ultimately, Hovis also hopes that the missions weekends, which bring people from white and African-American churches together, will contribute to another major CBFNC goal and continuing effort, that of racial reconciliation.
“One of the things we’ve figured out is that we’re not going to start by integrating churches. You can’t force it. Our Baptist polity doesn’t allow it, and you couldn’t anyway,” he said. “People cling to their traditions, and worship services are full of tradition.” But when people of different races come together to work, to help the needy and to worship, even for a weekend, that’s a good start that complements other efforts. “We are not near where we ought to be,” Hovis said. “But we are a lot better off than we used to be.”
The reasons for Larry Hovis’ mission about missions, and for his resolve to promote racial reconciliation, are clear. “We undertake these ministries because this is what Jesus called us to do,” he said. “In his inaugural sermon, in Luke 4, he told us to minister to the whole person. The question is not missions vs. evangelism, but missions and evangelism. They go hand in hand. One without the other is only half the gospel.” And as for racial healing: “Jesus didn’t die just for white people, or for black people, but for all people.
The apostle Paul made it very clear that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. I think Christ expects us to break down the barriers that exist in his body, including racial barriers.” “The bottom line reason we do all these things,” Hovis said, “is because of an attempt to be obedient to Jesus Christ.” Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.