In another life, Reverend Milton Graham could have been a professor. His ability to speak extemporaneously for long stretches, capture your attention, and teach you something at the same time are qualities I’ve found in only a handful of people. In fact, when I met him at the back of Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church for our interview, he wasted no time and began to share with me all the things God is doing through this small but influential church in the community.
Reverend Graham wanted to give me a tour of the church before we went to his study for the interview. As he walked me through the church, he carried a key ring with what looked like 20 to 25 keys. With every door he unlocked, he had a story to tell. In the sanctuary, he told me about the rich history of the church. In the sound booth at the back of the church, he told me about taking the church online during the pandemic and the people connected to the church’s mission through it—some as far off as Keyna.
A NEW NAME
In the vestibule, there were photos of the church’s pastors over the years. Reverend Graham followed the thread of time through each pastor’s tenure. He told me that the church used to be named Thomas Memorial in honor of Reverend Thomas, the church’s first pastor. Not many years after Reverend Graham received the call to become the church’s pastor in 1998 and the church began to do more outreach ministry, it appeared that Thomas Memorial was evolving into something else that God wanted it to be. So, a proposal was made to change the name of the church. As Reverend Graham told me, “Bethesda means ‘house’ as in ‘house of grace,’ ‘house of mercy.’ In John 5, Jesus was walking by the Sheepfold Gate near the Pool of Bethesda, where there were people in need — the lame and the sick.”
Reverend Graham explained to me that the vision God gave him for the church’s name was for it to be an open house for the hungry and hurting in the community. And, in the 25 years that Reverend Graham has been pastoring at Bethesda, this congregation of Jesus-loving people has been going outside its four walls to meet the needs of its community. “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” Reverend Graham said with emphasis. “You show people you care by meeting tangible needs. That’s why the food pantry and clothes closet were the first things I wanted to get going when I came here. With each opportunity to meet a need, you reach people and get to talk to them and get to know them.”
A STORY BEHIND EVERY DOOR
Beyond the vestibule, there was a hallway with several doors, and, as you might guess, there was a story behind every door. One room was filled with bicycles for the church’s annual Christmas giveaway. Last year, the church served nearly 500 families with gifts through this outreach ministry. Another room was filled with mattresses and other home items. Here, Reverend Graham told me how the church has increased its capacity for outreach ministry through partnerships with organizations like Care Portal and City Serve. “In doing outreach, you reach people with needs, but you also draw people who want to help you. Once, we had a Boy Scout troop from Harrison (AR) who wanted to help with our Thanksgiving Meals on Wheels. They showed up earlier than everybody else and were ready to serve!” It’s a good thing the troop did show up because the church’s Thanksgiving Meals on Wheels requires a lot of volunteers willing to give their time and heart to deliver meals. Last year, this outreach ministry gave away over 1,700 meals to families, homeless shelters, and anyone who needed one. A few years ago, Reverend Graham discovered a connection to Ben E. Keith Foods through a high school friend. Through this connection, Ben E. Keith partnered with the church and now provides food and staff for this annual outreach event.
As we walked down the hallway, I thought, “How remarkable that these rooms that were once used for Sunday School and might otherwise be empty or collecting dust have been infused with new life and fresh purpose.” I knew the church was involved in outreach ministry, but I wasn’t aware that it was at this level. Reverend Graham told me that “the most important thing we’re giving away is Jesus. You see, God isn’t religious. He’s relational. That’s what this is all about—faithfully stepping outside the church’s four walls and into the lives of others. Let’s build relationships with people in need and people who want to help. That’s why I believe in collaboration with other people and organizations. We are not in competition with one another. We are on the same team! And this is about faith. As my mother used to tell me, ‘You take one step, God will take two.’ He makes provision for your vision!”
Behind another door, Reverend Graham told me about the church’s spring giveaway. “One of the members of our church was a manager at a local Wal-Mart. Through her, Wal-Mart found out about the outreach ministry and gave us a grant and donated clothing and other items. We didn’t start with much with this ministry. It reminds me of the story of the boy with five loaves and two fish in John 6. Jesus took what the boy gave him and multiplied it to feed 5,000 people.”
TEACH A MAN TO FISH
Jesus met people’s tangible needs, but he also equipped his disciples to be “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). And teaching people to fish is something Reverend Graham was excited to talk about. “We had a homework network for kids in the community. We got a grant and bought computers for them to use. We’ve opened our doors to operate as an employment agency to teach people how to get a job and do an interview. Many in our church are passionate about prison ministry. People coming out of prison have difficulty getting housing and finding a job. These people want to help them with that and do things to decrease the recidivism rate. We have a family support group through a lady in the church who was a licensed drug addiction counselor. She has come in to help those struggling with addictions and their families.”
Bethesda’s passion for outreach has grown over the years. In the early years of his pastorate, Reverend Graham encouraged his congregation not to have a small church mentality. “In God’s eyes, every church is a big church. You have to get beyond ‘We can’t do this’ because Jesus told us, ‘Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these’ (John 14:12). Don’t limit what God can do because he can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”
The last story Reverend Graham told me in our time together was about cornbread. In college, he and his brother were part of a singing group that performed gospel hymns at churches and other events. One of the perks of being a part of this group was being fed by the churches that hosted them. At nearly every meal, cornbread would be served. But each time, the cornbread would be different. “There are different ways to fix cornbread. There’s white or yellow cornbread, sweet cornbread, hot water cornbread, or flat cornbread. But no matter how you fix it, it has two main ingredients—cornmeal and water.” Then, Reverend Graham explained what he calls his Cornbread Theory and how outreach ministry to others — regardless of ethnicity, background, level of need, etc. — comes down to the love of Jesus and sharing his love with others. Those are the main ingredients. What you make with those ingredients will be different for every person and church, but it’s still Jesus’ love going out to others. “There’s a lot of needs in our community,” Reverend Graham told me. “And some people in our community have never been to church. But for some, the church has never gone to them.” Sharing the love of Jesus and taking the church to them might be providing a meal on wheels on Thanksgiving morning or teaching a man to fish so he can learn the necessary skills to find a job and provide for his family. The opportunities and needs in Bethesda’s community are plenty. And the good people of Bethesda are seizing those opportunities to love Jesus and their neighbors.
We are thankful for the exceptional work of Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church and all the churches in our city that express the love of Jesus by going outside its four walls to reach people and meet their needs. They’re helping the whole Church grow.
Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Chris Loux, Communications Director – CityChurch Network