By Jim McCarty
In a small room at the Stockton United Methodist Church, a group of men gather around a table. Maps of the Holy Land rest on easels in the room, but their focus is much closer to home. The first cold snap of the year has pushed temperatures into the low 20s. Doyle Fry tells the men about someone who needs firewood to stay warm.
Neale Johnson has some good oak that has been cut but needs to be split. Rick Spiker has a splitter. Don Levi offers his dump trailer. Doyle sets a date, and others agree to be on hand to help load, unload and stack the firewood.
In an area where nearly 18 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and many people heat with wood, keeping the fires burning is just one way the church’s Methodist Men’s Group strives to live up to the ideals of the faith’s founder, John Wesley.
The men who make up the group are dedicated to making life better for those who find themselves in a bad situation. They are a vital part of a community that insists on taking care of those in need.
“It’s a group that is very welcoming of ideas on how to help people,” says Marvin Manring, a member of the group and the lay leader for the church. “They have a long tradition of cutting firewood or doing whatever they can to make people more comfortable.”
Most of the men know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of help. In May 2003, a tornado struck Stockton. The twister killed three people, leveled much of the downtown and stripped the landscape of prized trees. Those who experienced the destruction in the southwest Missouri town of 1,819 will never forget the devastation, nor the many strangers who showed up in droves to rebuild.
“After what happened, there were a lot of good things that took place,” recalls Marvin, who also is the band director for the Stockton R-1 School District. “We were going to rebuild, here we come. I think we have built back bigger and better.”
The tornado destroyed the church sanctuary and heavily damaged its Family Life Center. Heavy debt followed, and the Methodist Men’s Group helped pay it off the best way they knew how: cutting firewood. “We cut something over 100 cords of wood,” says Harold Beck. “It may not sound like a lot, but it is when your back is killing you.”
It’s not unusual for the group to learn about a needy family from the local school. That was the case with one ongoing effort that saw a family receive electricity for the first time.
Roy and Tamarah Burch live on 43 acres of land near Jerico Springs. They moved there 15 years ago, planning to build their own barn-style house and live off the land.
“When we came here, we came with the pioneer spirit to do things the way we wanted to,” Tamarah says. “But shortly after we did, my husband came down sick with leukemia. I’ve had several injuries. I fell and ripped both of my rotator cuffs in my shoulder. I also have fibromyalgia. Things have been a struggle.”
Another setback came when the couple attempted to gain custody of their granddaughter, an expensive process that required them to live in Indiana for seven months before succeeding. Debt grew, and the house they started building never was completed.
Solar panels they hoped would power the home failed, and the couple rented a generator to supply electricity to their well. They used oil lamps for light and wood for heat. Their only “luxury” was a radio.
Marvin learned of the family’s plight from the couple’s 10-year-old granddaughter, who was one of his students. He spread the word among the teachers, and a collection started.
Meanwhile, Don and Neale, who are members of the board of directors at Sac-Osage Electric Cooperative, looked into what it would take to bring electricity to the home through the co-op’s lines.
Two things were needed: a cleared right of way and $1,640 to pay for the line extension. “That was an impossible number for us,” Tamarah says. The Burch family soon learned what a caring community they lived in. Inspired by the donations from the teachers, others offered money. The Methodist Men’s Group chipped in, as did the Stockton Area Ministerial Alliance. A Sunday school group at another church helped, individuals made contributions and before long, the money was there.
“Whenever we got enough checks made out to Sac Osage, I took that over there, and we just got in the queue like everyone else,” Don says. “I suppose it took a couple of weeks.”
The co-op’s crews staked the route for the line, and on a hot Saturday, the Methodist Men’s Group showed up at the Burch house to clear the right of way. “We went out there with a long rope and laid it down and said that’s going to be our center line,” Don says. The right of way ended up a little crooked, but it did the job.
With a lot of help from a backhoe supplied by Scott Smith and a skid-steer loader owned by Stewart Thomson, the route for the power line was cleared in about four hours of hard labor. Sac Osage had power flowing to the house by September, much to the delight of the family.
“We had no electricity for 15 years,” Tamarah says. “We were ecstatic. I was telling them I have appliances I’ve held on to for 15 years. Now I’ve got to dust them off and see if they still work.”
The Methodist Men’s Group isn’t through helping the family. They are working on replacing the roof and doing some much-needed wiring.“We are very grateful to them,” Tamarah says, “more than what we could ever express.”
Over the years, the group has established a number of ministries. They financially support Barceda Families, an organization that works to prevent child abuse, mentors parents and helps them care for disabled children.
They sponsor a Cub Scout troop, coordinate a recycling program, clean up litter and for 20 years have been active in a prison ministry at the Cedar County Jail that includes weekly visits. They host a Christmas Angel Tree ministry with donated gifts that creates a connection between children and fathers who are in jail.
“They are a capable bunch, and they have been for a long time,” says Marvin. “We try to improve what we can, and sometimes you have to put some muscle into it to make it go.”
Explaining why the men give so much back to the community, Don tells a story related to him by his wife, Chris. “A couple moved back to the area after retiring. The lady said when they lived here before, they didn’t remember anyone being poor. Well, nobody recognized it. It was just a way of life. There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
This story was originally published in Rural Missouri, the statewide publication of the association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives: