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Above most doors at Smith Grove United Methodist Church in Davie County hangs a sign with the words, “A place to belong… A place to matter.” In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and the inability to gather in physical church buildings, Smith Grove UMC is finding new ways to foster belonging and wholeness in their community.

Funded through a five-year grant from The Duke Endowment, the NC Rural Center’s Faith in Rural Communities initiative partners with rural United Methodist churches (UMC) throughout the state to assess their congregational assets and also provides training and resource support to help rural churches better engage with their local communities.

Smith Grove UMC, a church in the 2018-2019 pilot cohort of Faith in Rural Communities churches, recently received a grant to help bridge that physical divide and respond to mental health needs. It was one of ten grants provided through the Faith in Rural Communities program at the Rural Center to support churches in responding to community needs caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Smith Grove UMC is using their emergency grant to subsidize telehealth mental health counseling in partnership with Drew Sewell and Lorri Hayes of Evexia Counseling and Consultation. The church will also be providing space in both their Mocksville and Cooleemee locations for in-person counseling sessions once it is safe to do so.

The groundwork for this program was laid long before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Back in August 2018, Smith Grove UMC formed a really great partnership with the Rural Center through Faith in Rural Communities,” says Smith Grove UMC minister Darren Crotts. Smith Grove UMC used their time in the Rural Center program to implement a mental health program at a local middle school. 

“Through that process we were able to form some incredible relationships in the community,” says Crotts. “One of those relationships was with Lorri Hayes, a counselor here in Davie County, who introduced us to Drew Sewell.”

Sewell, the owner of Evexia Counseling and Consultation, remarks that practicing out of churches like Smith Grove UMC allows him to keep the cost of care low for clients. “Because these partnerships allow us to use their space without charging us rent and overhead, and because Darren is connected in the community and can refer clients, it enables me to save money and charge less for sessions,” says Sewell.

The funding provided through Faith in Rural Communities will allow more than sixty sessions to be completely subsidized. “We are going to use this grant to support first responders, to help families who are suffering from the trauma of COVID-19—anybody who needs help,” says Crotts. 

“We are in a pivotal moment because of COVID-19 where people know that they hunger for connection,” says Sewell. “I’m hoping that we’re doing something that has not really been done before, and that we can have things that we’ve not really had before.”