When Mary Brown was just 14, she was tried as an adult for killing her stepfather.
The teen, who had caught her stepfather severely beating her mother, received a life sentence.
Nearly everyone seemed to give up on her — except Bernice Webster, a member of the Liberty Seventh-day Adventist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.
Webster, president of Adventist Community Services for the church’s Allegheny East Conference in Baltimore, heard of the teen’s plight and reached out to help.
“I became her mother by letter,” Webster said.
Although Brown’s case seemed hopeless, Webster encouraged her to pray and appeal. After more than 15 years, the sentence was overturned as overly harsh.
Now Brown also works with those who have been incarcerated.
“It was a struggle, but it was such a great feeling,” Webster said of parenting Brown through her appeal process. “She still calls me occasionally. Mary is doing alright.”
Webster is part of a worldwide organization that began 140 years ago when eight women gathered for a prayer group in Battle Creek, Michigan, with a central idea: The Seventh-day Adventist 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 was the Dorcas Society, an association of female members of the 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,” said Minnie McNeil, Adventist Community Services coordinator for the Columbia Union Conference and director for the Allegheny East Conference.
Today the work of those service-minded women continues through Adventist Community Services, and has expanded to include men, teens and families who volunteer to extend God’s love to others in more than 200 cities in North America.
The Columbia Union Conference, which encompasses Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington D.C., is home to 14 Adventist Community Services centers run by church members who dedicate their time to spread Jesus’ love in ways the early Dorcas women may have only imagined.
McNeil suggested that a common thread runs through all Adventist Community Services volunteers.
“We don’t see people as numbers,” she said. “We see everyone as a candidate for heaven.”
Webster, 89, began volunteering when she was 17 and has never stopped.
In addition to assisting people without a voice, 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 have gained a local reputation as people who care.
Liberty church pastor Mark McCleary said she is inspiring because she is more diligent than even much younger members.
“I am mesmerized and motivated,” he said.
Webster said 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 said.
She is not alone. Here are the stories of eight other volunteers who dedicate their free time, talents, and love to those in need across the territory of the Columbia Union.
Vera Norman and Jim Spitler, members of the Newark Community Church in Newark, Ohio, are the two oldest active volunteers in the area — and probably much further.
Norman is a centenarian who has worked with her local Adventist Community Services center for more than 60 years. She is vibrant at 101 and has been featured on in the Newark media for her life of dedication. Every Tuesday and Thursday, she gets a ride to the Carrousel Thrift Shop, located inside the Newark Adventist Community Services center, where she does paperwork and tells clients how many free toiletries and other items they’re allowed.
“I enjoy doing it, and it needs to be done,” said 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 Adventist believer, Jay Estep, to take over (see sidebar). Still Spitler helps feed more than 1,000 people each month.
“I just like to see the people that come in and give them a good word and witness to them,” Spitler said. “At this age it seems like you’re not very useful any more. But I still like to work.”
Newark church pastor Tom Hughes said both Norman and Spitler 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 said. “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.”
When people call the Adventist Community Services center of the Laurelwood church in Deptford, New Jersey, they rarely get an answering machine. Instead they get Julia Krug.
“If you have an emergency pantry, you have to have someone they can contact,” Krug said.
That’s why the office of U.S. Representative Donald Norcross calls the center when it has 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 the aide reached Krug, Krug sprang into action immediately.
“They were really under the strain and stress of losing everything in the fire,” said Krug, who provided 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 Adventist Community Services center after church services 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 the services.
The center receives some supplies from local establishments through the Second Harvest program, a nonprofit group that encourages restaurants to donate surplus food. On the wish list right now? A commercial freezer, which would allow the center to accept more donated food and help more people, Krug said.
“We want to hit the mark, and if we’re serious about service, hunger doesn’t wait,” she said.
Krug, 57, who grew up in an orphanage, said she would always be driven to serve because she understands what it means to struggle.
“Until I take my last breath, this will be my joy,” she said.
Mary K. Rinehart, a member of the Winchester church in Virginia, 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 people struggling with hunger and homelessness, she believes that it fills a void.
“It doesn’t change the total picture of their lives, but it shows that there is hope and there are those who care,” Rinehart said. “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 people in her congregation, located just an hour outside of Washington D.C., spends Sabbath afternoons preparing 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 said.
Debbie Eisele, one on a team of three pastors serving eight area congregations, including Winchester, said Rinehart remains committed even after her husband of nearly 50 years died last year.
“Her heart is full of compassion as she ministers, and her head is full of new and creative ways to serve,” Eisele said.
Rinehart, who heads the Winchester Adventist Community Services center, said 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 and countless others on the street.
“We’re a small church, but we try to do big things,” Rinehart said.
Dr. Leif Christiansen, a member of the Hamburg church in Pennsylvania, not only volunteers through Adventist Community Services, but he also 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, Pennsylvania. Christiansen, who helped start the clinic, said clients have no access to healthcare.
“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 said.
Clinic volunteers typically serve 20 to 30 people per month. Some need assistance filling out forms as they try to get insurance, some bring children for school health checkups, while many others fear using other area facilities because they have immigration issues, Christiansen said.
“This has been a great community outreach,” he said.
He believes that once you meet a community member’s needs and show sympathy, the next step of introducing Christ comes easily.
Jeannette Dare, Adventist Community Services director for the Pennsylvania Conference and member of the Adventist WholeHealth Network board, said Christiansen does more than anyone could reasonably expect. Through the Adventist Community Services center, he organizes an annual blood drive, helps put on a “fun run” race, and performs health screenings at the 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 said. “He is a consistent, broad spectrum, outwardly-focused, Christian volunteer committed to the betterment of humanity.”