The Heart of a Sprout
Recently, Buncombe Street UMC adopted a new vision statement which begins, “As followers of Jesus, our focus will be to share the “Abundant Life” with those outside our church, those inside our church and in our own families.”
But this is nothing new for the Sprouts program, which has embraced this vision since its inception nearly 30 years ago. Created by BSUMC Children’s Minister Reverend Gayle Quay, Sprouts is a covenant group for children in grades four and five. Rev. Quay uses the Jerusalem Cross to give the children a visual representation of acts of discipleship: Acts of Compassion, Acts of Justice, Acts of Worship, and Acts of Devotion. The children are encouraged to engage in these acts weekly and to tell about their efforts at their Sprouts meetings.
However, the Sprouts program offers so much more than a weekly meeting. Buncombe Street’s Sprouts, in their signature green t-shirts, are a well-known and welcome sight at the non-profit agencies dedicated to helping the “least of these” in the Greenville community. These include United Ministries, Ronald McDonald House, Shepherd’s Gate, the Salvation Army, Serenity Place, Emmanuel’s Hammer, and others.
One of the first lessons for many of the Sprouts is that poverty is not limited to distant continents but is found, in fact, right outside the doors of Buncombe Street.
“At first, our kids can’t believe that within a mile of here, we have people living in conditions of deep poverty,” Rev. Quay said.
Each year, the Sprouts participate in the United Ministries Transformation Walk, which begins at Fluor Field and takes participants along the three-mile route that many people take when seeking assistance from valuable service agencies in downtown Greenville. The Walk also takes the children through some neighborhoods that emphasize the desperate need for safe, affordable housing in our community.
The Sprouts are exposed to the homeless community through their visits to the Salvation Army, the Triune Mercy Center, and through an annual Poverty Tour. The fourth-grade Sprouts take a driving tour, while the fifth-grade Sprouts are led on a walking tour conducted by Buncombe Street staff member Bobby Thompson, who has experienced homelessness firsthand. Mr. Thompson said he now feels called both to minister to the homeless in our community and to help the Sprouts learn to do so as well.
“We went outside at night with Bobby and prayed for the homeless people we found and held hands with them,” said fifth-grade Sprout Bailey Williams. “We gave them socks because homeless people walk a lot and need socks. We went to McDonalds, then to the thrift store, and we found some people sleeping under an awning there.”
One of Rev. Quay’s most poignant memories is of a time the Sprouts were visiting the families at the Interfaith Hospitality Network (formerly GAIHN), which is a network of churches offering shelter and support to homeless families with children.
“The kids always think that they could never know any of the homeless children, but that time one of our Sprouts saw one of his friends in GAIHN. It was a shock for him, and it was awkward for all the kids at first, but they got past it and were able to have fun together. I know, though, that having that experience absolutely changed that Sprout’s life. He’ll never forget it,” Rev. Quay said.
“It’s our job to meet the kids where they are and to help them to grow.”
Of course, dealing with such painful realities can be difficult for anyone, even adults, so great care is taken to make sure that the young Sprouts aren’t overwhelmed by the new experiences the program offers.
“It’s our job to meet the kids where they are and to help them to grow,” said Rev. Quay. “It can be scary for them because they’ve never done this before. That’s why it’s so important to have good, consistent leadership. Sprouts is our only children’s program that has the same leaders each week. The children need to know their leaders well and to trust them.”
Erin Mercer, whose son Beau participated in the program this year as a fourth grader, was full of praise for his Sprouts leaders. “I didn’t really know much about Sprouts until Beau joined the program,” she said, “but I am so impressed by it. The leaders do such a wonderful job of helping the kids process what they see and learn. Sometimes it can get emotional or painful, but the leaders help guide the group through it. They make the program.”
And Beau Mercer clearly thrived in his first year as a Sprout. When asked what the point of Sprouts is, Beau answered without any hesitation: “It’s to teach you to be a better disciple of Christ.”
“I liked going down to the agencies that help the community and seeing what they do to help people,” Beau said. “But we weren’t just seeing them. There were lots of hands-on activities. We were actually helping.”
This idea that small hands can be useful and productive is at the heart of the Sprouts program, which strives to teach children that part of being a disciple of Christ means loving and helping others.
“My favorite agency was The Salvation Army,” Beau said. “We sorted bread there, and we built a small library for the people there. [The library] was for adults and for children, too. The people there don’t get a lot of visitors, so they were really happy to see us.”
“We made bookends for the library at the Salvation Army,” Bailey Williams said. “We hammered the nails ourselves and then painted rocks to hold them in place.”
But the Salvation Army wasn’t Bailey’s favorite of the agencies she visited. “When I grow up, I want to work for Emmanuel’s Hammer,” she said. “I really like building, and I like to fix things.”
Bailey and her fellow Sprouts visited an Emmanuel’s Hammer project site – Operation Laura (Learn more about this project on the Emanuel’s Hammer website). Laura Dobbins’s house is complete now, but hidden beneath the drywall are notes, blessings, and Bible verses written by the Sprouts on the 2×4 studs. They so enjoyed seeing the project and meeting Laura that they later planned a housewarming party for her.
“We went to the store and got lots of cleaning supplies because those are really expensive and good to have. We put them in a laundry basket,” Bailey said. “But the best thing was we got her a prayer blanket that we all prayed over before we gave it to her.”
Acts of Compassion.
Acts of Devotion.
Acts of Justice.
Acts of Worship.
Sometimes these acts take the form of a new pair of socks on a cold night. Sometimes they’re scribbled on 2×4’s or whispered over a blanket. Sometimes they’re heaped in a laundry basket. And sometimes they’re visits to people who are struggling… people whom no one else thinks to visit.
That’s what it means to have the heart of a Sprout.