At left Vickie Rhodes, assistant managing director for the Union Baptist Church Ministry Center, talks with Pastor Eddie Wilcox, center, and Charles Walker, managing director. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index
PITTS — Around 9 p.m. on April 20, 1921, eyes across middle and south Georgia turned toward the town of Pitts.
People looked skyward at the glowing fireball that soon developed a cloudy trail behind it. Wilcox County residents heard a series of booms as the meteorite broke apart into four sections, each landing in an area north of town about a mile long and quarter-mile wide. Understandably, the event caused quite a stir and made Wilcox County a point of conversation for some time.
Another topic of discussion these days surrounds the Union Baptist Church Family Ministry Center, located on the main drag of this town of around 300. There, residents of Wilcox County (and beyond) can purchase needed items at drastically reduced prices. It’s become a sorely needed ministry in an area that ranked 156 out of 159 Georgia counties in per capita income ($12,692) in the 2015 census.
“It’s a great example of God’s people being faithful to His calling,” said Eddie Wilcox, pastor at Union. “We can’t know what kind of effect it’s having on a large scale, but the church has been faithful in what God has commanded it to do, and God has blessed it. This is changing people’s lives.”
Ministry began under former pastor
The Ministry Center on the corner of highway 208 and 7th Street operates as a registered non-profit and subsidiary of Union Baptist Church.
Since Oct. 7, 2006 under the leadership of then-pastor Buford Tanner, it has provided clothing, food, medication, rent, help with utility and medical expenses, and other essentials for those in Wilcox and Crisp counties. Clothes, shoes, housewares, furniture, and other goods are sold for pennies on the dollar, with the stock coming from donations of local families.
No money made at the center goes back to Union Baptist Church. Instead, it flows into a number of beneficiaries including local schools, three $1,000 scholarships awarded at the end of the school year, a nearby Christian Learning Center, Patriots for Christ, local church mission trips, and assisting payment for others’ medical, utility, and rent expenses.
Most volunteers are members of Union, though others from area churches pitch in. All are Christian and must come with a letter of recommendation from their pastor.
‘Just a country church’
Union Baptist can be a stand-in for numerous other country churches. Driving to it takes you past several fields until the road opens up to a picturesque red brick exterior building. A large cemetery lies on one side. Those pulling up into the church parking lot on the other are likely to be greeted by Dixie, a grey-and white Spaniel mix whose owner, church member Al Crenshaw, lives nearby.
Union will celebrate its 160th anniversary this upcoming spring. Wilcox, a native of the area, became pastor three years ago after retiring as a sergeant from the Warner Robins Police Department. His retirement to his home two miles from Union capped a 17-year career in law enforcement.
“We’re just a country church, but God has really blessed us,” said Wilcox, whose father, Talmadge, was a well-known Georgia Baptist pastor over 63 years of ministry. “It’s the most amazing church I’ve been a part of.
“They believe in doing what Scripture commands, and that’s to reach people. They’re very missions-minded and always looking to help in whatever way they can. They give not just financially, but their time.”
The Ministry Center is set up to run similar to that of a Goodwill store, he explained. Donations suitable for resale are placed on racks at a severe discount. However, the help is extended to other cases.
“If someone comes in and needs help with a light bill, for instance, we have paid that in the past,” he said. In addition, Union supports other ministries such as a pregnancy care center. It also provides 40 brown bags and 20 boxes of food each month to 60 families, funded by proceeds from the Ministry Center.
Charles Walker, managing director of the Ministry Center, has been a member of Union for more than 40 years. The Center often steps in for situations other than a place for shopping, he noted.
“We’ll have people come in who are recovering from housefires and things like that. We ask them to fill out a brief form and then give them five outfits apiece.”
A Gideon, Walker is able to get as many Bibles as he needs to hand out to customers. Those often turn into witnessing opportunities.
“Our volunteers are constantly telling people about Jesus,” said Vickie Rhodes, assistant managing director. “Cashiers witness as they’re checking out.”
Thanksgiving and Christmas affect the way they lay out the merchandise, she explained.
“We’ll hang on to the nicer toys for around Christmas. Second- and third-generation families who are on fixed incomes come here to shop.”
In addition to year-round residents of Wilcox and Crisp counties, migrant workers have become expected at the Ministry Center. Groups from Haiti and Mexico come in during the early spring to plant and then help harvest watermelons, cantaloupes, and strawberries. Some remain into the fall to help plant pine trees.
Many Vietnamese have made a claim into the local poultry industry as well, said Wilcox. “We have a Vietnamese gentleman who has been visiting our church. Recently he missed several Sundays due to work and apologized for being absent.”
Nearly 100 years ago eyes followed a streaming light across the Georgia sky to Wilcox County and Pitts. Today, eyes are still looking in that direction but because of a different light and a different mission.
What may appear to some as ministry on a small scale is still causing a stir, making Union Baptist Church and the Savior it represents the topic of conversation for many.
Scott Barkley is editor of The Christian Index.