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Project brings campers, local church members together for common goal

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By Alice Du Pont

Eleven years ago a sign was erected on Old Bainbridge Road near Shade Farm Road, 4.4 miles north of the Quincy city limits, proclaiming that St. John Church of God in Christ was coming soon.

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"The sign was up there so long that it became an embarrassment because people kept asking when the church was coming," said Rev. Ronald McCloud, the church’s pastor. Neither McCloud nor the congregation, which includes about 100, never gave up. The church, McCloud said, has been a part of their vision since they acquired the 10-acre property in 1995.

That's all behind them now due to the efforts of a group called Alabama Campers on Mission. This group of recreational vehicle enthusiasts, and thousands of others like them, crisscross the county annually, helping build and restore churches, as well as Christian camps and schools.

"Campers on Mission is a national fellowship of Christian campers who share our faith while camping. We are part of the Adult Mobilization Unit of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Church Convention," said Billy Mims, project manager.

It’s a group the St. John congregation and pastor have become well acquainted with.

"One day (4 years ago) my wife and I were on our way to Bainbridge (Ga.) and we passed this church under construction on the right just before you get into the city limits. As I looked back in the rearview mirror I saw something behind the church that piqued my curiosity," McCloud said.

What he saw behind that now-completed church was the campsite of volunteers known as "Builders For Baptists." On the way home, McCloud stopped and asked one of the women who they were and what were they doing. After he explained the plight of his congregation, the woman said there was nothing they could do because they had a long waiting list.

Undaunted, he made calls and sent e-mails to Campers On Mission, and found out from county officials what initial steps needed to be made to get things started on the property. One of the necessary items was to include a holding pond on the property. McCloud said the church had enough money to begin the project but not enough to see it through to completion.

Campers on Mission told McCloud they had a waiting list, but promised they would put the word out among all their chapters.

Mims found out about the Gadsden County project through those e-mails. The Alabama COM was committed to a project in Arizona but that project had been put on hold. All of a sudden they were free to come to Florida.

One of the requirements for membership in COM is to own an RV, Mims said. The RV owners come with vehicles that are fully outfitted to pop-up campers. There are no qualifications needed, just the desire to help others through construction.

Mims, a former pilot, said he had hardly any construction experience when he joined COM. Now he scouts sites before the members arrive to work. He and his wife, Brenda, must make sure that a campsite is level and is equipped with sewer, water and electricity. The churches agree to provide all of the materials and the COM members provide the labor.

"Ten years ago I had never built a thing. All of us get on-the-job training. We start carrying boards, then we are allowed to nail and so on until we learn. They give is a set of plans and our construction manager, Wilton Whigham, goes over them," Mims said.

Whigham and his wife, Kathy, have worked on over 100 projects since they joined COM.

The COMs now have chapters in all of the southern states and several midwestern states. Mims said they organization was founded around 1971 by people who liked to camp and who wanted to do something in communities. COM members are usually couples, although some widowed men are also members. Almost all are retired but some people, Mims said, take their vacations to join COM projects. College and high school students will often volunteer during spring and summer breaks.

Angela Foster and her husband, Bill, are full-time campers. The couple lives year-round in their RV. She admits that RV living is not right for everyone but the close proximity has drawn the couple closer.

"Plus, we have met some phenomenal friends and some terrific people,” Angela Foster added.

Outside the entrance of David and Marilyn Webb's RV sits three 5-gallon buckets containing healthy cherry and heirloom tomatoes. The couple said the plants are a reminder that they have roots where ever they go in the RV. The Eustis couple say there is no life like RV life. They are members of the Florida COM, which has approximately 600 members. The couple was looking for a project when they heard about the Gadsden County project.

"The volunteers come from all walks of life. On this project we have a couple of retired NASA engineers who had a lot to do with space shuttles, we have a retired Burger King manager who was with them for about 30 years, we have a couple of retired Delta pilots and we have a salesman," Mims said.

Pete Garrett was a test engineer with NASA who said he never tried carpentry before joining COM. His wife, Bonnie, a retired registered nurse, had never traveled in an RV before she met and married Pete 4 years ago. The couple met after both of their spouses died and RVing has become a wonderful way, they said, of learning about each other.

The Alabama COM came to Gadsden County just after leaving New Orleans. Each year since Hurricane Katrina, Mims said, the Alabama COM spends 2 months in New Orleans building one or two homes.

"About 3 to 4 weeks after the e-mail went out, Billy Mims showed up at the site. We had done the foundation, and the walls and roof were up when they came. Getting the  front of the church on has been hard and they have done all of that. We felt that we were a small church trying to do the impossible. We had been saving for 11 years and with the campers here to help us it's an absolutely wonderful feeling and it is having a positive impact," McCloud said.

Last week, the group and the congregation celebrated one month of work and could see how the sanctuary, offices and classrooms were coming together. When the 41 campers arrived, the roof, floor and walls were the only parts of the 19,000-square-foot building in place.

"They are doing complete interior work. The volunteers are doing all of the electrical and plumbing work, walls for the bathrooms, kitchen, classrooms, AV room, equipment room and offices. When they finish with the downstairs, they'll do the upstairs. They are putting up the walls but they are not going to install the sheet rock," said church member Al Ellis, who is with the volunteers daily.

The new church will seat 400 to 600 people upstairs and downstairs. The new building has created a stir throughout the St. John and Robertsvillle communities.

"Just the sight of the work going on and the RV campsite has a lot of people stopping and showing interest in what we have going on. I am sure the church will have a positive effect and I'm looking forward to serving the community better and welcoming new members who want to come and grow with us," McCloud said.

While the men are working on the building, the women are busy with various sewing projects. During the past 4 weeks the women have started their day at 10 a.m. at the former McCloud home on Astor Lane. Inside the common room are bolts of fabric piled high, thread, sewing machines and cutting boards. The women are busy making reversible dresses for little girls and short pants for little boys.

"The ministry is called ‘Hemmed On Prayer’ and we make these little dresses and pants that are sent to a woman who makes sure they get to needy communities. Last year, 44,000 dresses were distributed worldwide," said Angela Foster.

While in Gadsden County, the women have made lap robes for wheelchair-bound children at George W. Munroe Elementary School. One day, on a visit to the school, the women entertained 75 children with a puppet show. They have also made wheelchair bags for the residents at Magnolia House and knitted caps for children.

Mims and members of the COM agree that Gadsden County is the kind of place where they like to help.

"I have never been in a community so friendly. They are here to fix us lunch every day and the food is so good they are spoiling us," Mims said.

Other churches in the community have volunteered to prepare and serve lunch. Neighboring St. John AME, AGAPE and Blessed Hope churches are among those who have volunteered to provide lunch.

But the ball really got rolling for volunteers when a local Christian radio personality, Scott Beagle, went to the church and aired an interview with some of the volunteers and church members.

"It was like the spark we needed to get the word out about what we're trying to do. All of a sudden people knew about us and the campers," McCloud said.

For more information or to help, write St. John Church of God in Christ, P.O. Box 568 Quincy, FL 32352.    

Send your comments to adupont@gadcotimes.com.