Becoming the Beloved Community
By: Ingrid Schnader
Windows with wooden frames that were rotting out. A back porch that would have fallen in if you’d stepped on it. A heater that had caught on fire and hadn’t ever been fixed.
These were the conditions that Bernice Sistrunk had been living in just one year ago.
Sistrunk, an 82-year-old resident of Tuskegee, Alabama, recently had a hysterectomy and knee surgery, which left her unable to do any strenuous physical activity. People promised her that they would come help her repair her house in the past, but the people of Alabama Rural Ministry were the first people who actually showed up.
Alabama Rural Ministry coordinates about 20 home repairs every year. They are connected to the United Methodist Church, so they also do ministry while at the homes. Director and founder Lisa Pierce said there was a great need for a group like this in the area.
ARM started serving the community almost 20 years ago in Sumter County. Since then, they have grown — in addition to home repairs, they do summer camps, and they are also renovating the Tuskegee Methodist Church into a missions outreach center. They also have grown in locations — they now serve Lee, Russel, Macon and Chambers counties.
“I asked the question, ‘If we went away, what would happen?’” she said. “Well, there’s just not a lot of groups like us,” Pierce said.
Alabama Rural Ministry relies on the work of volunteers and interns. When Joe Davis was in college at Auburn University, he interned as a construction coordinator over the summer. He returned as a volunteer, and he has been the director of ministry operations for the past four years.
“We’re a small group responding to a very large, growing need,” Davis said. “So it seems we’re always in need of help from someone.”
In addition to having a small staff, Davis said that there aren’t a lot of resources in the areas that they serve. For example, Lee County has a Habitat for Humanity. But for other places in Alabama where they serve, such as Sumter County, there are no other groups working to put an end to substandard housing.
“There’s always this feeling of we can never do enough,” Davis said. “Having to say no to people is a challenge, or, ‘We can’t accept applications right now, call us back in a few months,’ knowing that there’s a good chance we won’t be accepting applications then either.”
Despite having a long list of challenges, Davis said the work is rewarding.
“Just hearing the families talk about what it means for them to have a
home that is warmer, safer and drier,” he said. “They can sleep better
at night knowing that the ceiling is not about to fall in on them.”
When Sistrunk saw an ad in the paper for Alabama Rural Ministry,
she called. To her surprise, they had been getting ready to come
see what repairs her home needed.
“Oh, I was so thankful,” Sistrunk recalled.
“And they did everything for me that I really needed.”
ARM volunteers also provided a little extra help. They pressure-washed
and painted the outside of her Tuskegee house and her carport. They noticed
that her stove wasn’t working, so they took out the old one and installed a donated one. They replaced some of the cabinets in her kitchen that weren’t functional, matching them to the ones on the other side of her kitchen. They even trimmed the bushes in the front yard.
“When they put those windows in, it looked like it just put the face back on the house,” she said.
Walking over to the back of her house, Sistrunk pointed out of the window in her kitchen. Outside was a grassy yard surrounded by a fence. She talked about how she enjoyed being outside in her backyard, trimming her muscadine vines.
Before Alabama Rural Ministry repaired her porch, it was difficult for her to walk down there. “I could fall through it coming out the back door,” she said, remembering what the porch had been like.
In addition to the work they did on her home, Sistrunk said she appreciated the company that she had while ARM volunteers were there.
“When they had lunch, they would sit here and have lunch,” she said, gesturing to the couch in her living room. “They always brought me a sandwich. They said, ‘Ms. Bernice, what do you want?’ I said, ‘I’ll take a sandwich. But don’t put jelly on my peanut butter! Sometimes they would have ham and watermelon. Just whatever they had, they would share with me.”
Most of the volunteers are retired and say they enjoy the camaraderie that working with Alabama Rural Ministry gives them.
“Most of all, I think I enjoy that we’re helping people in the long run to better their lives,” said Paul Grisham, who frequently volunteers with Alabama Rural Ministry. “Giving them a dry, clean, warm place to live.”
Sistrunk, whose husband has passed and who has no children of her own, said they treated her like family.
Sistrunk said she likes to go to a church nearby, but she hasn’t been in a while because of the difficulty she has getting around. Alabama Rural Ministry was able to bring the church to her.
“Every day we had prayer,” she said. “During the noonday hours, we’d have a session where we’d sit around, eat, they’d have a devotion, and we’d pray and talk.”
Sistrunk said she also loved to tell them stories while they worked about being a little girl and growing up in the South. “I told them how I had to work in the cotton fields to make money to get me through school and stuff like that,” she said.
Joe Davis and Jeremiah Bryan, who worked together on her house, both said they enjoyed sitting with Sistrunk in her living room during their breaks and listening to the stories about her childhood.
“She’s just a delightful lady to be around,” said Bryan. “While all of the volunteers were working, she would just sit and tell stories.”
Her stories taught Bryan that perseverance and determination will get you a long way, he said.
In addition to her passion for storytelling, Davis also observed her commitment to service in the summer of 2017.
“She was giving rides to one of our other home repair families who was coming to serve at the day camp in Tuskegee but didn’t have a car and couldn’t drive,” Davis said. “So Ms. Sistrunk was going out pretty much every day, Monday through Thursday, for a couple of weeks in a row, going to pick her up in the mornings and take her home in the afternoons. So that was about 60 miles a day for an 82 year old. She was excited to do it, and she wants to do it again this summer.”
Reflecting back on her life, Sistrunk said that she doesn’t hold grudges and always tries to find a way to smile.
Sistrunk said she felt that Alabama Rural Ministry shared Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of building a “Beloved Community.”
“They helped the people who really need help,” she said. “Fixed their homes up. Cause you see, some people can’t do it. I, for one, couldn’t do that. My husband had passed, and we had been trying to get some help. They help make the community look so much better. And I always will cherish them.”
Construction Supervisor Bryan summed it up saying, “We’re helping show God’s love and how neighbors are supposed to treat their fellow neighbors.