Mission of the Dirt Road in Keystone Heights, Florida, is a young church that values incorporating community development and discipleship.

Rev. Carey Morford is well invested in ministering in this north central Florida community. She and her husband, Isaac, grew up in Keystone Heights, a small town with approximately 1,500 residents and a large surrounding rural population. The Morfords live in the low-income neighborhood where they serve. Their love for their hometown led to the church being planted in 2016.

Morford saw the need to create an official entity that would allow her and other local leaders to effectively serve residents.

“As a part of our community development efforts, I started talking to some local leaders about meeting regularly to discuss the community needs we were seeing, problem solving and trying to prevent the duplication of services,” said Morford. “Keystone SafetyNet Alliance was developed.”

The group had its first community meeting in the fall of 2019 that was open to “any business leader, non-profit and faith-based leaders and community members” and met consistently until March.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit the United States, Morford and the organization’s co-chair contacted local officials to see if area leaders had plans in place for those who would likely suffer financially. A subsequent Keystone SafetyNet Alliance Facebook post helped identify community and individual needs.

Mission of the Dirt Road congregants, in addition to many other volunteers in the community, stepped up to help meet those needs staffing a local food pantry (where over 9,000 people have received food), hosting several drive-thru food distribution events and delivering meals daily to homebound seniors. Several non-profits helped.

“When we first started making plans on March 12, we had no idea where the food or funding would come from, so we made the best plan we knew to make and then waited on God to show up,” said Morford. “He certainly did! It has been amazing to watch how faithful he has been as each person and organization has taken their small step of obedience and trusted that God would come through.”

In July, Morford learned that Clay County, Florida, would be allocating $750,000 to support “ongoing work of local non-profits who were providing services related to COVID-19.” A high percentage of the lower-income population regularly needed hygiene and cleaning supplies. (In Florida, these items cannot be purchased with welfare or food stamp benefits, and the food pantry could not keep their shelves stocked.) Mission of the Dirt Road received $31,300 to provide hygiene and cleaning supplies to approximately 250 families per month through December.

Now, with the start of school, the church, along with other Keystone SafetyNet partners, has been collecting school supplies and backpacks for students. Those items and Mission’s cleaning and hygiene items are being distributed simultaneously. A local building has been purchased and is being renovated for a future community center.

The pandemic has given Mission of the Dirt Road an “in” when it comes to having added opportunities to communicate the gospel, a way to encourage others and offer hope when fear, loneliness and isolation are constant in people’s lives.

“Bibles and other literature were distributed at most of the Keystone SafetyNet food distributions,” said Morford. “We also made a ‘tip sheet’ at the beginning of the pandemic, which included recipes to make with some of the food we distributed, simple tips on keeping things clean or how to make due with a shortage of particular items. We included a link to a video by Francis Chan, which presented the gospel. And on Easter Sunday, Mision of the Dirt Road, did a ‘drive-thru’ service where 100 families were given a bag with Easter eggs and candy and supplies to make an Easter egg for the hunt that had been started in our area. A copy of the Jesus Film was also included. (It’s our tradition to have a neighborhood movie night using that film on Good Friday.)”

Morford remains excited about the future of serving the Mission of the Dirt Road community.

“Community development makes a great platform for discipleship,” said Morford. “The verse we built Mission around says, ‘We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too’ (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

“We have to learn to love people who are different from us. And we believe that as we do this work, then God will allow us to build real, trusting relationships with our friends and neighbors so we can share Jesus with them in a real and meaningful way so their life can be resurrected. One resurrected life should lead to another resurrected life which God can turn into a revitalized neighborhood.”

Throughout the last several months, the pandemic’s presence reinforced Mission of the Dirt Road’s vision. Morford knows that vision will continue to be lived out long after COVID-19’s effects lessen.

“We have really tried to focus on becoming neighbors and friends,” said Morford. “I think this particular season of serving people in crisis has reaffirmed some values for our church: empathy is important, dignity is important, grace is important … Jesus taught us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and treat every single person with love. This is key to being the Church.”

“Pastor Carey loves people through their hurts and needs as she leads a creative ministry focused on community development,” said Rev. Patrick Styers, district superintendent of the Florida District. “She really helps people to serve and lift those living on the fringes of culture.”