Just before the pandemic hit in early 2020, Bridge of Hope Community Church in Anderson, S.C., was in full swing with a new weekend children’s ministry called PB&J: Peanut Butter, Basketball and Jesus. It started with a simple idea — take sandwiches and snacks, basketball and Jesus to the kids who live in an apartment complex next to an elementary school across the street from the church.
The kids loved it. They would play games, take home leftovers to the rest of the family, and end each session with a few devotionals and prayer. But after several key families moved away, and with COVID-19 rearing its ugly head, the ministry started to dwindle.
Marissa Benoit, one of the key church members who felt a burden to help those families and the person who started PB&J, began to be discouraged. It wasn’t long until the Lord planted a new idea in her heart.
“He [the Lord] told me to simply walk over to our neighbors with a Bible and some snacks,” she said.
The idea was to bump into some of the children they already knew, ones Marissa and her husband, Luke, church member Kathy Voyak and other church workers had already started building relationships with, either through teaching them inside the church or by picking them up on Wednesday nights.
The idea was a bit daunting. The group wasn’t sure how to start. But Marissa said they quickly realized how hungry the kids were for an adult to give them positive attention and teach them about God in a way they could understand.
From this humble beginning, the Benoits and Rev. Mark Griffith came up with the idea of hosting a stripped-down version of church on the playground located next to the apartments every Wednesday evening. They brought Bibles, blankets, snacks and drinks, and the occasional object lesson item.
“There was no technology, no bells and whistles,” said Marissa.
She added, “We meet, and I teach until the Holy Spirit says we’re done. Sometimes we are together for over two hours with all the questions the kids ask!”
It isn’t just the kids who are listening. The outdoor service age ranges from three years old to adults, including some of the kids’ parents.
This church service outside of the church walls has been going on since June 2020, and usually draws around 20 kids of various ethnicities. Bridge of Hope also saw 60 adults and children come to pick up back-to-school supplies.
Through these relationships, the Benoits have not only found people to cook meals and care for sick families, but they also found a way to provide a car for a family in need, a situation that led to employment for both parents.
Those first steps of obedience, to simply walk across the street with snacks in hand to tell someone — anyone — about Jesus, has led to physical healing from prayer, assistance from the church food pantry, the creation of a new prayer partner ministry that began at Christmas and spiritual growth in the kids who have been reached.
“We expectantly pray and look forward to what the Lord has planned for the future of these relationships,” said Marissa.
Rev. Griffith believes outreach is simple if we break it down to who we are called to be in Luke 10:27. “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The fruit of this labor was recently realized when seven children accepted Christ as their Savior on the same day. It all began with Rev. Griffith’s sermon on being intentional about praying for people’s salvation. The seed of that sermon was planted in Marissa’s mind and grew over time. The seed sprouted and led her in teaching a group of children about the parable of the merchant, and how seeking the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.
With the Holy Spirit’s prompting, one child threw his hand in the air and shouted, “I want to go to heaven!” This spontaneous outburst led Marissa to explain that it is a serious thing to follow Jesus and takes commitment. After leading the group in a sinner’s prayer, one little boy was crying with his head in his hands. When asked if God was speaking to him, he answered, “Yes, he’s just saying ‘I love you.’”
Bridge of Hope found a way to break through one physical barrier — a church wall — to reach the families in its community. That act literally took away any hindrance to reaching the littlest ones.
Jennifer Jones is the district administrator for the South Carolina District of The Wesleyan Church.