Making A Life Change
Rev. Jeff Fugitt and his wife both grew up in rural areas, so moving to a town of 3,000 that was a 45-minute drive from anything bigger felt natural to them when he was appointed to Cassville UMC. But one thing that immediately struck him as he drove through a town different from the rural Midwest of his youth was the number of adults just standing around … many of whom carried the look of someone struggling with substance abuse.
This wasn’t the type of ministry he was geared for. He had spent most of his life in academia, teaching classes in religion at the college level. But he had seen these issues before, at his previous appointment at Schweitzer UMC in Springfield. It wasn’t a ministry he was directly involved in, but he had seen the church lean into helping people on the margins through Church at the Center and a transformative mentoring program started by Kim Hammons called Jobs for Life. And he knew a guy …
Derek Cornelius was in a recovery house in Springfield and found the program wasn’t all that helpful. He started volunteering at Schweitzer UMC, enrolled in their Jobs For Life program and became involved in multiple ministries helping marginalized people through Schweitzer’s Church at the Center. Fugitt contacted his friend Derek and started talking to him about Cassville.
He was fortunate that Cassville UMC had a heart for helping people in need. As a result, his message of Christian responsibility was well received by the congregation.
“We talk about doing things for the community a lot in church, but when you look at how we’re spending most of our money, it’s on ourselves,” Fugitt said.
He is impressed with how the church has funded the Life Change initiative.
“They are paying for Derek to work half-time, knowing that everything he does has no chance of ever bringing any money back into the church,” Fugitt said. “This church has a real history of compassion for the community.”
The food pantry in Cassville was originally started by church members and was housed in the basement of the church. It eventually expanded to its building and is now an independent non-profit corporation. Fugitt can picture Life Change eventually following that same path.
The Life Change program in Cassville is set up to be completed in a year and involves things like Jobs For Life, Creative Finance and Alpha.
“I took the stuff I’ve done and modified it and added classes for our program,” Cornelius said.
The group meets on Sunday evenings and Tuesdays at noon. The Sunday evening gathering is the largest and offers childcare. Fugitt and Cornelius take turns doing the short message, which is preceded by and followed by three songs.
Tuesday noon was chosen as the other meeting time so it wouldn’t interfere with Celebrate Recovery or 12-step programs already offered in the community. The meeting offers lunch and usually involves a video Bible study series.
People can join at any time. They can participate in the program for a 30-day trial before being paired with a mentor and officially enrolling.
Participants also do a service project, which often doubles as outreach. For example, they go to the local laundromat on the last Saturday of the month and pay for people’s laundry. While there, they can get to know people they haven’t met. Some of Life Changes current participants directly result from the laundromat outreach.
“We talk to people, but we’re focused on listening and giving people an opportunity to tell us their story,” Cornelius said.
They also try to do one fun activity a month, like hiking, bowling or the Winter Jam Christian music concert in Springfield. In addition, they set up an invitational booth at events organized to connect homeless and marginalized people to services.
“A lot of my time is spent helping people connect,” Cornelius said.
The program is still in the developmental stage, with plans for expansion and growth. For example, Cornelius intends to establish a Life Change store where participants can exchange community service hours for necessities like clothes and gas cards.
He would like to get to the point where the Life Change rooms are open during the day, like a community center. He’s considering using his skills in auto repair to set up a shop where he could teach some job skills and allow participants to earn some money and get some work experience by working with him. He doesn’t think they would come up short on cars to work on.
“Transportation is a big issue here,” Cornelius said. “It’s a big county, and there is very little transportation available if you don’t have a car.”
He could see other things developed, like a community garden and cooking classes.
The program has also been growing leaders. Quentin Hymas has been involved with the church in Cassville for about 10 years, although initially, it was just through volunteering in the food bank. He then got recruited to help in the sound room. As a result, he is one of the first graduates of the Life Change program.
“I didn’t want to ask anyone to do anything that I hadn’t done myself,” he said.
He is now the lead volunteer for the ministry and is excited to see how the Lord will work through the program to change the lives of people in his community.
In a recent testimony given at Life Change and shared in their Facebook group, Jeff Crumpler shared how he was sentenced to maximum security prison at age 16 after shooting someone. He became involved in Celebrate Recovery while in prison, and Fuggit connected him with Life Change.
“You are not what your past makes you. You are what your creator made you,” Crumpler told the Life Change group. “Each one of you have something to give to the rest of the world.”