WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. When the Rev. Scooter Scott graduated from seminary, he envisioned himself as a Billy Graham preaching to the masses.
But after a stint as a United Methodist minister, the former public school administrator found that he wasn’t meant to be a famous evangelist and began modeling himself on a lesser-known public figure, one said to have helped rebuild a crumbling city more than 2,400 years ago.
That figure, the biblical leader Nehemiah, rallied the Jewish community to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and serves as the namesake and archetype for Christ Central Ministries’ Nehemiah Project, the all-volunteer ministry Scott leads that works to meet the needs of those living in poverty in Lexington County.
It’s work that Scott likes to call “real-world ministry.”
“I never learned anything like this in seminary,” he said.
Scott helped start the organization in 2008, and ever since, volunteers have done everything from feed the hungry to teach the undereducated in an attempt to serve and empower the less fortunate.
Every weekday, the Nehemiah Project partners with Turner Memorial AME Church to provide free lunches to as many as 250 children and adults in West Columbia.
When a volunteer cook didn’t show up on a recent morning, the Rev. Kenneth Taylor, the church’s pastor, stepped in. A big pot of macaroni and cheese warmed on the stove and black-eyed peas simmered in a slow-cooker, while residents from the surrounding community trickled in for what Taylor said was often their only meal of the day.
Taylor, whom Scott and other volunteers praised as the “community pastor,” started the feeding ministry a couple years ago after people started visiting the church requesting meals. The church initially fed 15 to 20 people per day, but those numbers grew quickly, particularly after the Nehemiah Project became a partner a little less than a year ago.
“I saw the need of hunger, so God directed me to start feeding people,” Taylor said. “I just didn’t think that in West Columbia we would have as much need here, but we have – in my opinion – just as much if not more than there is in Columbia across the river.”
The church also partners with the Nehemiah Project to host a Fast Track GED program every Friday. The program began about two years ago and quickly outgrew the small space, adding a Saturday meeting.
Retired Airport High School teacher Francis Sandifer has helped lead the program from the beginning. Sandifer and other volunteers tutor participants and lead them through practice tests to get them as well prepared as possible before the program pay for participants to take the real test.
About 200 people have earned their GED diplomas through the program since it began, Sandifer said, with 20 more signed up to take the test. But for Sandifer, the program is not just about results – it’s also about building relationships with people.
“It’s like a big family, an extended family. Really extended,” he said. “There’s a lot of love here. I feel like I’m blessed more than the people we serve.”
Many graduates have gone on to study at Midlands Technical College. Graduate Tim Asbill is pursuing his associate degree in radio and television at Midlands Tech. He said he got involved with the GED program at just the right time.
“I was thinking, ‘This is exactly what I need. This is a godsend,’ ” said Asbill, who has even returned to help with the program since graduating last June.
The Nehemiah Project supports a range of other programs throughout the year, from collecting and donating coats, to helping high school students find summer jobs doing yard work. The after-school program at Airport High School, which provides tutoring and leadership training for struggling students, will resume when the school year starts, and the organization has plans to provide another free holiday meal at the high school around Christmas after last year’s event fed more than 5,000 people.
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