Connecting Columbia Union Seventh-day Adventists

December Feature: Giving Cheer All Year

We found nine amazing ACS volunteers—including a trio of motorcycle “ministers”—who go the extra mile year-round to help those in need in their mid-Atlantic neighborhoods.

Story by Mark Tyler

Eight women gathered for a prayer group in Battle Creek, Mich., more than 140 years ago with a central idea: the church should provide food and clothing to needy families, minister to the sick and care for the fatherless and widows. Born from that 1874 meeting came the Dorcas Society, an association of female members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church that grew to assist countless people in need throughout North America and beyond.

“Those volunteers did such amazing work that almost anywhere in the world, even today, people remember the selfless women of the Dorcas Society,” explains Minnie McNeil, Adventist Community Services (ACS) coordinator for the Columbia Union Conference and director for the Allegheny East Conference.

Today the work of those service-minded ladies continues through ACS, and has expanded to include men, teens and whole families who volunteer together to extend God’s love to others. The Columbia Union is currently home to 14 official ACS centers run by Adventist members who dedicate their time to spread Jesus’ love in ways the early Dorcas ladies may have only imagined.

McNeil suggests there is a common thread that runs through all ACS volunteers: “We don’t see people as numbers; we see everyone as a candidate for heaven.”

Here are nine rather amazing ACS volunteers who dedicate their free time, talents, and certainly lots of love and cheer to those in need across the Columbia Union territory:

Dynamic Duo: Proving Age is Just a Number

Vera Norman and Jim Spitler, members of Ohio Conference’s Newark Community church in Newark, are the two oldest active volunteers in Licking County—and probably much further.

Jay Estep and Vera Norman stand on the loading dock of the Newark Adventist Community Service Center in Newark, Ohio. Photo by Michael F. McElroy for Visitor Magazine

Jay Estep and Vera Norman stand on the loading dock of the Newark Adventist Community Service Center in Newark, Ohio.
Photo by Michael F. McElroy for Visitor Magazine

Norman is a centenarian who has worked with her local ACS center for more than 60 years. She is still vibrant at 101 and has been featured on a secular Newark website for her life of dedication. Every Tuesday and Thursday, she gets a ride to the Carrousel Thrift Shop, located inside the Newark ACS center, where she does paperwork and tells clients how many toiletries and other items they’re allowed—completely free.

“I enjoy doing it and it needs to be done,” says Norman, who credits her longevity to a vegetarian lifestyle. “It makes me feel good that I’m still healthy enough to do it and don’t have some other thing to pull me away.”

Spitler, 92, has devoted more than 20 years to the Newark center, which houses the first food bank of Licking County. It opened in 1945. Spitler, who volunteered with his wife of 70 years, Jean, before her death last year, managed the food until about a year and a half ago. That’s when he trained a new convert, Jay Estep, to take over. Still, Spitler helps feed more than 1,000 clients each month.

Vera Norman and Jim Spitler stand in the thrift shop of the Newark Adventist Community Service Center in Newark, Ohio. Photo by Michael F. McElroy for Visitor Magazine

Vera Norman and Jim Spitler stand in the thrift shop of the Newark Adventist Community Service Center in Newark, Ohio.
Photo by Michael F. McElroy for Visitor Magazine

“I just like to see the people that come in and give them a good word and witness to them,” says Spitler. “At this age, it seems like you’re not very useful any more. But, I still like to work.”

Newark church pastor Tom Hughes says both are examples of what service is all about. “They have motivated generations of young people to take up the mantle of service to others,” he says. “To me, personally, they are my heroes, especially Jim, who is an elder and an example to the community. He inspires me and makes me want to be a better pastor and a better man.”

A Mother to the Motherless

When Mary Brown was just 14 years old, she was tried as an adult for killing her stepfather, who she caught severely beating her mother. The teen received a life sentence, and nearly everyone seemed to give up on her—except Bernice Webster (left), a member of Allegheny East Conference’s (AEC) Liberty church in Baltimore.

Webster, who is the ACS federation president for AEC’s Baltimore Extended Area, heard of the teen’s plight and reached out to help. “I became her mother by letter,” Webster explains.

Bernice Webster, 89, of Randalstown, Maryland poses for a photo in her home on November 13, 2015.

Bernice Webster, 89, of Randalstown, Maryland poses for a photo in her home on November 13, 2015.

Although Brown’s case seemed hopeless, Webster encouraged her to pray and appeal. After more than 15 years, the harsh sentence was overturned. Now Brown also works with those who have been incarcerated.

“It was a struggle, but it was such a great feeling,” Webster says of parenting Brown through her appeal process. “She still calls me occasionally. Mary is doing alright.”

In addition to personally assisting individuals without a voice, for ACS, Webster works with soup kitchens, teen tutoring and adult tax advice programs. She builds relationships with state and local legislators, establishes public/private partnerships and marshals resources so that Adventists are known as people who care.

Bernice Webster poses for a photo in her home on November 13, 2015. Photo by Matt Hazlett

Bernice Webster poses for a photo in her home on November 13, 2015. Photo by Matt Hazlett

Webster, 89, began volunteering when she was 17 years old and never stopped. Liberty church pastor Mark McCleary says she is inspiring because she proves more diligent than much younger members. “I am mesmerized and motivated [by her],” he says.

Webster says her mission is reaching people in tangible ways. “My biggest joy is trying to pass the love of Christ to people through my actions,” she says.

A Speedy and Joyful Responder

When people call the ACS center of New Jersey Conference’s Laurelwood church in Deptford, they rarely get an answering machine—they get Julia Krug (pictured with husband, John Crews). “If you have an emergency pantry, you have to have someone they can contact,” Krug explains.

JuliaKrug_NJACS copyThat’s why Rep. Donald Norcross’ office calls them when they have people in need. One of the congressman’s aides once left messages for social service agencies all across town trying to secure assistance for a couple burned out of their home. When they reached Krug, she says she gave service without delay.

“They were really under the strain and stress of losing everything in the fire,” she says, and gave them food and gift cards for personal items. “This helped to bridge the gap as they waited for their renter’s insurance to kick in.”

The Laurelwood church, which has offered emergency response for 20 years, also opens the ACS center after church two Sabbaths per month. The center’s sign-up sheet is posted inside the church lobby before the worship service. People receive immediate assistance after church, whether or not they attend church.

The ACS center receives some supplies from local establishments through the Second Harvest program, a nonprofit that encourages restaurants to donate surplus food. On their wish list right now? A commercial freezer, which would allow them to accept more donated food and help more people, Krug says.

“We want to hit the mark, and if we’re serious about service, hunger doesn’t wait,” she says.

Krug, 57, who grew up in an orphanage, says she will always be driven to serve because she understands what it is to struggle. “Until I take my last breath, this will be my joy,” she states.

An Advocate for the Hungry

Mary K. Rinehart (pictured), a member of the Winchester (Va.) church, doesn’t turn her head away when she sees people on the roadside with “Homeless. Please Help!” signs. She rolls down her window and hands them a sack full of love.

It’s nothing fancy: just a brown paper bag with a can of ready-to-eat pasta, a small can of peaches or mixed fruit, a bag of chips and a box of juice. But, with so many struggling with hunger and homelessness, it fills a great void, she explains.


Photo by Matt Pohle

“It doesn’t change the total picture of their lives, but it shows that there is hope and there are those who care,” says Rinehart. “We tend to not notice what we’re not looking for. But, when you start making an effort, you start to notice that there is more of a need than you thought.”

Rinehart doesn’t work alone. A team of about 20 in her Potomac Conference congregation, just an hour outside of Washington, D.C., spends Sabbath afternoons making similar nonperishable bag lunches so that everyone in the church can help the homeless during their daily commutes.

“When someone makes a commitment to a ministry, the Lord will provide the people who He wants you to serve,” Rinehart suggests.

Pastor Debbie Eisele, one of a team of three pastors serving eight area congregations, including Winchester, says
Rinehart remains committed even after last year’s death of her husband of nearly 50 years. “Her heart is full of compassion as she ministers, and her head is full of new and creative ways to serve,” Eisele says.

Rinehart, who also heads the Winchester ACS center, says church volunteers have opened the center weekly for more than 10 years, providing financial assistance for rent and utility bills, along with food and clothing. They serve some 250 families per year at the center, countless others on the streets.

“We’re a small church, but we try to do big things,” Rinehart says.

Leif Christiansen, a member of Pennsylvania Conference’s Hamburg church, not only volunteers through ACS, he spends his limited spare time in numerous forms of service. When he is not working as a private practitioner of internal medicine serving two hospitals, Christiansen runs a community health clinic for the uninsured through the Adventist WholeHealth Network, a nonprofit organization in Wyomissing, Pa. Christiansen, who helped start
the clinic, explains that their clients have no access
to healthcare.

Photo by Krystal Irrgang

Photo by Krystal Irrgang

“Some can’t afford the care they are supposed to sign up for, and then you have people who are unfortunately down and out, and we see them more routinely,” he explains.

Clinic volunteers typically serve 20-30 people per month. Some need assistance filling out forms as they try to get insurance, some bring children for school physicals, while many others fear using other area facilities because they have immigration issues, Christiansen notes.

This has been a great community outreach,” he says. He believes that once you meet their needs and show sympathy for their situations, the next step of introducing them to Christ comes easily.

Jeannette Dare, Pennsylvania Conference ACS director, who serves on the Adventist WholeHealth Network board of directors, says Christiansen does more than anyone could reasonably expect. Through the ACS center, he organizes an annual blood drive and helps put on a “fun run” and performs health screenings at Pennsylvania Conference Camp Meeting. He also hosts cooking classes and gives diet and lifestyle lectures through his local church.

“In addition to fervently conceptualizing and implementing Adventist programs to the community, it is not unlike Dr. Christiansen to lend his time and expertise to nonprofit social service agencies outside the denomination,” Dare says. “He is a consistent, broad spectrum, outwardly-focused, Christian volunteer committed to the betterment of humanity.”


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