Members of the New Hope Worship Center and First Baptist Church of Augusta dedicate their Saturday afternoons to serving the less fortunate through the New Hope Bridge Ministry that takes place under the Calhoun Expressway Bridge at 15th Street.
Its mission is “to feed, to clothe and to minister the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the inner-city poor and the homeless,” said Roger Gardner, the pastor and founder of the Bridge Ministry.
Each Saturday begins with setup, which includes the band, congregation and children’s area. From there, volunteers are gathered and assigned to different positions then service begins with prayer and music. Before the sermon, meals are packaged and served to adults and children by volunteers in the Planet Hope food truck. If available, clothes are given to those in need after the sermon, Gardner explained.
The inspiration for the outreach ministry came from the impact of the original Bridge Ministry in Nashville, founded by Southern gospel singer Candy Christmas in 2004, he said.
“She came to our church and presented to the church that the Lord had called her off the stages of Nashville as a gospel singer to minister to the poor,” Gardner said.
The process of establishing the ministry consisted of getting the permits and securing the location, going to the right authorities, and prayer, Gardner said. However, there was an even bigger obstacle.
“Wisdom – knowing how to start and what to do,” he said. “We started very small with only a handful of volunteers and some pick-up trucks and an old bread truck.”
Gardner said he and the volunteers persevered, finally holding the Bridge Ministry’s first service in 2007.
“The first service was the first Saturday in January of 2007,” Gardner said. “The weather was miserable, and we probably had about 40 participants.”
From their experiences, New Hope was able to prepare First Baptist for when it took on its own Saturdays beginning June 25, 2011.
“We prepared from September of 2010 through June of 2011,” said Byron Brown, an ordained deacon and leader of the First Baptist volunteers. “So, (we had) about nine months of preparation. We were well prepared for it. (We prepared with) prayer and in planning.”
According to Brown, he heard about the Bridge Ministry more than four years ago from an old Bible study acquaintance with whom he met for breakfast.
“When we finished the meal, he said he had to go to the Bridge Ministry,” he said. “So, I followed up with him and found out about it.”
As a result of certain life factors, he said he was pointed in the direction of “serving the poor and the oppressed” and despite being unfamiliar with New Hope, he said he found enough common ground through this mission to get First Baptist involved.
“There’s a lot of division in Christianity today between churches and between denominations,” Brown said. “There are a lot of walls that have been erected by man. We oppose that, and we come together and worship as one denomination and that is believers in Jesus Christ.”
With the added help, the Bridge has been able to increase its services.
“If you didn’t know which church was leading, you wouldn’t know (the difference) from Saturday to Saturday,” Brown said. “We follow the same schedule, the same plan and the same outline. We’ve just been able to double the effort because of picking up the in-between Saturdays.”
An effort that some would say is making a significant impact in the lives of the less fortunate.
“People come to know Christ and they receive hope where there’s hopelessness, and the greatest thing is that they receive love,” said Gardner. “We care and we want to help them meet their needs. We want to give them a hand up and not just a handout.”
This attitude inspired some of the inner-city poor and homeless to participate with helping the less fortunate overseas. A group of men from the local Salvation Army began offering what they could after finding out about New Hope’s efforts to provide help for people in other countries, said Donna Marella, a volunteer with the Bridge.
So far, their offerings have helped establish 22 churches in countries such as China, India and Africa, as well as helping a girl in India who was used in human trafficking, Marella said.
“When I see people touched by God, those are memorable moments,” said Bill Thompson, a volunteer who has been involved with the Bridge from its beginning. “Just being able to encourage people and pray with them [and] see them overcome hang-ups and troubles.”
Thompson said that his experience has “fleshed out” his perspective on poverty to where he has a deeper understanding of its reality.
“We should have a heart to extend ourselves to those that are suffering more,” he said. “That is the responsibility of the community and the church, not the government. That’s one of the big lies and deceptions that we’ve had.”
Valerie Davis, a volunteer and member of New Hope, said her experience made her realize that many people are unaware of the amount of homelessness in the community and not being involved allows them to ignore these situations.
Gardner said this may be why the ministry faces such a challenge when recruiting volunteers.
“We always need volunteers, we always need money and we always need prayer,” he said.
Another major challenge is spreading the word of the Bridge Ministry’s resources and help to the poor and homeless, Thompson said.
The ministry remains optimistic about the future with hopes of building a dream center, especially to house, train and disciple homeless women and children as well as help with work and social skills, Gardner said.
As the ministry moves forward, Gardner said there are things volunteers need to be aware of.
“I want them to be aware that this is a church,” Gardner said. “This is not an event; this is a place that we meet with the Lord every Saturday. It’s a battleground. It’s not a training ground. We fight for lives.”