In his 20 years at the church, Shades Mountain Baptist’s pastor Danny Wood has always had a big heart for missions on a global scale. Between 2000-2010 the church sent missions teams to all 50 states, all but three time zones and all continents except Antarctica, and the focus remained the same through 2016. But coming into 2017 church leadership started to ask a different set of questions. “It left us wondering about our own backyard and how we could have positive impact on our own culture and community,” Minister for Community Engagement Steve Browning says. “We continue to be involved around world, but we have decided to be a lot more intentional in our own community.”

That’s when their Community Engagement ministry was born as “a whole new chapter of ministry,” Steve says. One Sunday in January 2017, Danny Wood launched the initiatives and laid out a vision for the church’s direction in the years to come, and Steve transitioned to lead them after several years of serving as student minister. “My heart has always been to get the good news of Jesus Christ to people who don’t know about Him,” Steve says. “We are looking for effective ways for us to serve and help people see the love of Christ and perhaps open doors and be able to share with them.”

Their first step was to plug in members to lead people to make an impact on the city, people who Steve says are “high capacity leaders who wanted to do more than teach a Sunday school class.” They knew they for sure wanted to address a few areas like schools and first responders, and from there they looked to tap what people in the church were passionate about. “The benefit of a church our size is you have a lot of folks you can mobilize and challenge to get back out in the community,” Steve says of the more than 2,000 people who attend on Sundays.

Shades Mountain Baptist member Burke Swearingen, far right, is leading a team to build relationships with Vestavia Hills police officers.

For the First Responders

The genesis of Shades Mountain’s movement toward community engagement coincided perfectly with the journey of Burke Swearingen. He served in law enforcement for 26 years, ending his service as the police chief in Homewood from 2003-2007 before going on to a second career, but his fondness for law enforcement never waned. “Back in 2015 felt like the Lord was telling me it was time to do something else,” he recalls. “For years I had been involved with discipling high school young men, but I felt like God was telling me to take the message outside of the church.”

And then 2016 happened, with police officers assassinated in Dallas and Baton Rouge, among other tragic incidents around the nation. “I couldn’t think of a time where police officers were under such attack,” Burke says. At the same time, the church leadership had in mind to develop a ministry to first responders and knew Burke would be the perfect leader for it.

So at the start of 2017 he formed a team to do just that. In March they fed the entire Vestavia Hills Police Department and gave each officer a policeman’s Bible, and members of the team hosted smaller groups of officers for meals in their home as a part of the Cop Stop program. Burke knew law enforcement is always hungry for good quality training and learned it was a high priority for the Vestavia department, so later in the year the Shades Mountain team sponsored professional leadership training for front line supervisors. But overall their efforts aren’t so much about the events themselves.

“We want to build consistent relationships,” Burke says. “We are in this for the long haul to minister to their emotional and spiritual needs for the officers and their families… [First responders] are their own subculture so they are very cautious about who they trust and confide in. ”

Long term, the team hopes to expand these relationships to the Vestavia Hills Fire Department and other first responders nearby, as well as to have ongoing support groups for first responders and their families. Burke also envisions creating pamphlets and brochures with resources that officers can use—all part of their overall effort to minister to these community members. “It’s something really positive that can be life changing,” Burke says.

For the Educators

One of the first areas  of the community Shades Mountain looked to at the start of 2017 was schools—what Steve calls the “cornerstone of the community” that both the community calendar and culture center on. “Teachers needs to feel encouraged and appreciated and feel like someone has their back,” he says. “We wanted to make sure they felt supported and if they had any kind of need they could call up Shades.”

“We have had incredible teachers at East,” says Holly Black, who leads the Vestavia Hills Elementary School East Engagement Team with her husband. “My oldest loves school and that is so much a reflection of how teachers have poured into her, so it was a no brainer for us to pour into this as a way to say thank you.”

Their team started by meeting with East Principal Dr. Mark Richardson and telling him they wanted to partner with them to “love on” the school and encourage your teachers and administration.

Their first step was to listen to what needs the school voiced. A cleanup team was needed after a carnival, so their team organized volunteers. The Shades team also learned teachers and administrators didn’t have umbrellas on hand to use when it was raining during carpool, so they ordered 24 red and white umbrellas with East logo. They have also supplied backpacks for kids who need them, “Essentials Bags” with gym shorts and undergarments in case any student has an accident, and food packages for kids whose families need it to take home on weekends.

Shades Mountain Baptist members encouraged Vestavia Hills Elementary East teachers and staff with sweet treats before the holidays.

The team also packed cookie bags with a note to encourage teachers during the “lull” that comes in the fall—a time period Dr. Richardson recommended when they asked. “We don’t want the credit, we just want to come alongside the school,” Holly says. “We have wonderful PTO and parents, this is just another facet to love on teachers and administrators and to help the school year run smoothly.”

About 30 people from the church are on the East team. Some have kids there now, some just love the Vestavia School system, and some have children who have graduated or are in high school but want to give back to East based on the impact it had on their kids. “I was blown away that they were wanting to come back years and years later,” Holly says.

This year the church is also partnering to support Shades Mountain Elementary, and their plan is to continue to adopt more schools in the area with a hope is to have eight adopted schools by the end of 2019.

Overall Holly says their vision is to “live sent” and “be the hands and feet of Jesus.” “We go out in the community to do good works to show the love of God,” she says. “Whether that’s the cop program or the schools, whatever it looks like, it allows us to go outside the walls of the church and into the community and love on people in whatever capacity that is.”

More Shades Community Engagement

Community Host

Shades Mountain also likes to open up the church to host groups from the community at little to no cost. Samford has held its penning ceremony there, and Pizitz its choir and bands concerts, for instance. “We want to make sure they feel welcome when they are there,” Steve says.

Healthcare Advocacy

A new board supports those walking through health crises who do not have family or friend support. Partnering with UAB support teams, a group of church members is being trained to help care for patients who are released home to the areas around the church. On a related note, they are working with Project Access, an organization that recruits local physicians to volunteer their services for those in need.

Event Sponsorships

Based on interest from members, the church is also sponsoring community events like I Love America Day and Community Night Out and making other efforts to support the work of the Vestavia Chamber of Commerce. At events they pass out freebies at a table, but most of all they are there to show their support for the community.

Holiday Film

A group of members gifted in all things advertising and marketing—including Rick Burgess, Tommy DeRamus, and filmmaker Ethan Milner—came together to make a 30-minute short film for the holidays that will air on Fox 6, CBS 42, CW 21 and NBC 13 commercial-free on Dec. 15 and 16.

In it, a delivery truck driver finds out he will be laid off and plans to steal what’s in a delivery truck, but ultimately discovers that life is not about money and steady job but rather that Christmas should remind us about relationships and doing right by people.

The church is encouraging its members to have watch parties all over the city and invite coworkers and friends. “We all want a reason to gather,” Steve says. “This is a great way for us to reach out, everyone can relate to TV.”

Police Chaplaincy

Three Shades Mountain members, Jim Cartledge, Steve Dedmon and David Phillips are serving in the city’s police chaplaincy program. The goal is for these chaplains to build relationships with the officers, be a listening ear of support for them, and to encourage them—as well as to be a person of faith to minister to people on the scene in any traumatic events that occur.