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A New Operation | By Frances Hasty

Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me.

- Matthew 25:40

Operation Inasmuch has been best known for repairing countless houses in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods throughout the city, thanks to hundreds of church volunteers.

Now, it is adding a new ministry that will focus on the needs of the homeless and others facing hard times in the community, providing not only a hot breakfast and a place to shower but also a chance to learn a skill that could lead to employment.

By the beginning of next year, the Operation Inasmuch Ministry Center will open at 521 Hillsboro St., in a building donated by St. Luke AME Church, which is located across the street from the center. Now being completely renovated, the 7,000-square-foot building had been vacant for 10 years and was “a mess,” said Sue Byrd, OIAM executive director.

Using plans donated by architect Thomas Goetz, volunteers are rolling up their sleeves and doing much of the labor at the center, first cleaning out debris that filled 11 dumpsters, Byrd said. Contractors, some of whom donated their services, were called in for plumbing, electrical and other areas that required specialists.

There were obstacles along the way, Byrd acknowledged. For example, there was the costly problem of removing asbestos from the building. Out of the blue, she said, a person certified in asbestos removal came along, removed it and hauled it away for free.

“Every day something like that happens,” she said. “When you see things like that happen, you know God’s hands are in it.”

Byrd stressed that the center is not a shelter. It will be open only during the day with some evening classes. The breakfast program is not limited to the homeless. Anyone needing a meal, whether they live in VanStory Hills or on Hillsboro Street, is welcome, she said.

A fresh start means a fresh look, and showers and washers and dryers will be available. Some clean clothing will be available. And there will be food for the spirit through music and devotionals. A prayer garden has been built on the grounds, a restful place for meditation.

It’s important to build a relationship with those who come to the center, Byrd said. “There will be people who will sit and talk with them, who will give them a shoulder to cry on. We can never reach people if we don’t get to know them. …We want them to feel ‘I’m welcome here, somebody loves me and believes in me.’

“Once we build a relationship, we’ll show them the classroom.”

The idea of bringing in trained listeners appealed to Lynette Downing Ehler, a member of First Presbyterian Church. “The greatest therapy in the world is to be able to talk to somebody who knows how to listen,” she said.

Ehler began to help with the prayer garden and a soup bowl fundraiser that drew volunteers from all backgrounds. Byrd told her story after story of the ways that help seemed to arrive just when she needed it most.

“She went out on a limb,” Ehler said, “and began to look for office space with no money and no promise of continuing funds.”

But yet volunteers arrived, volunteers like Tischa Eddy who helps to keep home repairs going as Byrd focuses on the new ministry center. “We are responsible for those around us,” Eddy said, explaining why she volunteers. And she also does it to stay connected to other members of her congregation, Northwood Temple. “It’s great to do home missions, and it’s my heart’s cry to do home missions. But I want to see my congregation get to know one another. The only way anybody really gets to know each other is to get their hands dirty and reach out in the community.”

That’s exactly what other volunteers are doing. Through the cooperation of Fayetteville Technical Community College and volunteer instructors, those interested will have the opportunity to learn a skill in the areas of carpentry, plumbing, heating and air conditioning repairs and auto mechanics. A class on computer basics is also offered.

The center will depend upon the services of volunteers and donations for the success of the center, but both have come through in generous – Byrd would even call it miraculous – ways since Operation Inasmuch was born more than 13 years ago at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church. It was the idea of the church’s pastor at the time, the Rev. David Crocker.

Byrd, a member of Snyder, said, “He had a vision that people ought to come out of their church walls.”

The idea was to have a one-day, hands-on mission blitz when volunteers would go into a neighborhood and do home repairs for owner-occupied houses with a focus on the elderly and disabled.

It didn’t take long before other churches became involved, and now more than 50 area churches of all denominations take part in the ministry. It has spread to not only all 100 counties of North Carolina but also to other states. Crocker serves as executive director of the national OIAM based in Nashville, Tenn.

“It was born at Snyder, but it didn’t belong to Snyder,” Byrd said. “It belonged to God.”

Although the ministry may be best known for its home repairs and construction work, there are many other projects that involve volunteers, from the children who sing for the residents of rest homes to teenagers who do yard work and women who sew blankets for the homeless and teddy bears to be given to children in crisis situations. Some prepare and pack lunches for the blitz workers.

Other volunteers address boxes to be sent to deployed military while others package hygiene kits for the homeless. Residents at a shelter for women have been treated to makeovers, while men involved in Alcoholics Anonymous have been invited to go fishing.

“What’s more Biblical than going fishing?” Byrd asked.

And the list goes on.

“Everybody gets blessed in this,” she said. “The biggest blessing comes to those of us who go out and do the work.”