As the only Methodist church in Graham County, Robbinsville functions as a center of community life for people in this quiet corner of the Smoky Mountains.
Matt Garfield, the Foundation’s director of communications, visited Robbinsville in early February to learn about the 170-member congregation’s outsized influence. Rev. Eric Reece and his wife, Rev. Beverly Parker-Reece, have pastored the church for six years.
An anchor for the community
Robbinsville became a Foundation client in 2021 when church leadership chose to invest proceeds from a land sale. A year earlier, the church began offering a worship livestream with the help of a technology grant from the Foundation’s Reynolds Ministry Fund.
“When the pandemic hit, we were one of the first churches in the area to go live with streaming,” Eric said. “We were amazed at all the views, engagements, shares and watch parties. We are still learning, but know we are reaching more people.”
Located on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, Graham County (pop. 8,089) has the third-smallest population of any N.C. county. It is mostly covered by national forest, including the giant poplars of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the Nantahala National Forest.
The average per-person income is $23,604, one-third less than the statewide average. There is one grocery store for the entire county.
“We do have a primary care physician and a dentist,” Eric said. “But we don’t have a lot of things.”
Adapting to meet today’s needs
The congregation works with Graham County schools and social services to assemble food boxes and keep food pantries stocked.
Through its work with Imagine HUB, an initiative to redeploy church buildings for community-level economic empowerment, Robbinsville UMC makes extra space, Internet and office equipment available to up-and-coming small businesses.
Nonprofit organizations such as Guardian ad Litem work in Graham County but have no physical presence there. The church building has become its “local office.”
During the worst of COVID-19, the church served as a distribution site for school supplies and food. When a vaccine outreach group needed a local partner, Eric and a Duke Divinity School intern joined a door-to-door campaign as the group offered shots and personal protective equipment to anyone who wanted them.
Beyond the walls of the church
A new study finds that rural churches are economic difference-makers for their communities.
Partners for Sacred Places, in partnership with The Duke Endowment and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, studied 87 congregations over two years for a report called “The Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina.”
The participating churches, on average, were responsible for more than $735,000 per year in economic impact in their local communities. Among the catalysts: Food pantries, child care centers, community gardens and even special events like weddings and funerals that bring in out-of-towners.
Although Robbinsville was not part of the study, it certainly fits the profile of a small church that makes a big impact.
“Our church doesn’t concentrate on ourselves – we look out to see what God is calling us to do and be,” Eric said. “Folks know they can call on us, and we’ll do what we can to help.”
Additional sources for this article: The Duke Endowment, Dogwood Health Trust
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