“To keep people warm” is the unofficial mission statement for a United Methodist ministry that transforms the mundane chores of splitting and delivering wood into life-giving acts of love for their neighbors.
“The wood ministry is not a glamorous ministry, but, for me, personally, it’s a way to help people,” says C.B. "Bo" Tye, who heads up the outreach at Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Stafford, Virginia, and who gave the local church ministry its tagline.
Increasingly, United Methodists across the connection are discovering neighbors who use firewood in their homes, not for ambience but out of necessity.
More than 100 tons of wood
Stafford, a few miles north of Fredricksburg, Virginia, and a commuter city to Washington, D.C., is the county seat of one of the most affluent counties in the state. Still, the Ebenezer UMC ministry stays busy with wood deliveries from November through April, with more than two dozen regular customers and calls for emergency needs regularly popping up. This season, volunteers delivered 42 cords of wood. (Note: a cord is measured as 8 feet long, 4 feet high and 4 feet wide, weighing up to 5,000 pounds.)
“We know there are people who need that wood to cook and to keep warm,” says Bob Skewes, leader of Ebenezer UMC’s United Methodist Men, which supplies many volunteers. “You can throw money at problems like that, but money isn’t necessarily going to help them as much as setting that wood right outside the door where they can get it.
“We’ve had people come to us with tears in their eyes to say ‘thank you,’” Skewes recalls. “We are called to serve God and to serve others. The woodcutting ministry is one way we can do it.”
When Jacke DeLeeuw and her husband, Robert, retired, they wanted to spend their time volunteering. Project Firewood, an outreach through their congregation at Cullowhee United Methodist Church was a good fit.
“I’ve never been able to find a downside to working with Project Firewood,” Jacke DeLeeuw points out. “It’s uplifting, good exercise and follows Jesus’ command that says, ‘Whatever you do for the least of these my children, you’re doing this for me,’” she says, quoting Matthew 25:40.
During a recent season, Project Firewood volunteers delivered 268 loads of firewood to Jackson County elderly residents.
Community partnership in action
Both Cullowhee UMC and Ebenezer UMC work collaboratively with other organizations, including local government, successful testimonies to how faith communities augment existing outreach.
A partnership between Ebenezer UMC and Compassion Restoration Ministries (CRM) provides funds for gas and other necessities, including a recent CRM grant that funded chimney inspections and maintenance.
Cullowhee UMC receives referrals from the Jackson County Council on Aging, where Matt Broomell, a Cullowhee UMC member, works as the county coordinator.
“I think there are certain rights that all humans have: to be fed; to be taken care of as far as health goes; having a place they call home that is heated and warm, especially those whose bodies are older and starting to fail. It’s our job as Christians … to take care of them as best we can. I think it’s something Jesus would have done.
“As a carpenter, Jesus would have given all of his scraps to turn into kindling,” Broomell supposes. “If there was a firewood ministry, Jesus would have been there every month.”
Finding her call in the woodpile
Cullowhee UMC is uniquely located on the campus of Western Carolina University and houses the university’s Wesley Foundation. On the first Saturday of every month during firewood delivery season, church members, as well as scores of college students, show up to deliver wood.
For Rachel Gibby, a former WCU student, volunteering with Project Firewood was a pathway to explore her call as a pastor. Growing up in another denomination, Gibby says she was used to seeing older adults only serving in church ministries.
“I became United Methodist because I loved how much service I, as a young adult, could be involved in. That’s what drew me into the United Methodist Church,” says Gibby, who is in her first year at Duke Divinity School.
“You can’t change the world, but you can take care of your corner” is an adage that Gibby’s mother taught her. The woodcutting ministry is the adage in action, Gibby says.
“There’s a lot of joy, even in the rain and the grossness,” she declares, citing mud and sweat as some of the less appealing parts. “Working in the wood ministry feels like worship, the best kind of worship I’ve ever had in the sanctuary. People are taking time to love each other. It’s just like church for me.”
Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email. This story was published on March 30, 2022.