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“How can we help this community?” is the question Smith Grove United Methodist Church began asking when they merged with a church located in Cooleemee, North Carolina. Rather than drawing any conclusions on their own, they decided to engage in community dialogue. 

After surveying their new neighbors, they learned the biggest needs were: 

  1. Internet access 
  2. Transportation 
  3. Food Insecurity 

They decided to address internet access, a challenge that applies to much of rural North Carolina. 

One of the hopes of the NC Rural Center is for all of the state to have access to internet via quality, affordable broadband. Additionally, COVID-19 has further underscored how much of a necessity stable broadband access truly is; students need it to complete online coursework, healthcare patients may need it for telehealth, and businesses who depended on in-person sales need it for entering online retail spaces. Broadband, you see, has become a necessity for flourishing life. The question becomes: What can we, as rural churches, do? 

One of these options is fixed wireless, where a Wi-Fi antenna is mounted to the top of a tall structure, such as a steeple or a silo—and this is exactly what Smith Grove UMC did. They sent a courageous and willing congregant to ascend the belltower and mount one of these fixed wireless Wi-Fi antennas. To their delight, it provided competent internet for the surrounding block (about 600 feet in all directions). Though it did not cover the entire town, many residents began driving to the church to use this public internet, making it a “hub” for the community. 

Smith Grove UMC realized that not only were they providing internet access, they were creating a communal gathering space. So, they renovated a room in the church into a café that looked just like the “Central Perk” from the well-known TV show Friends. 

Can you imagine the possibilities to love our neighbors that would open if rural churches across the state began to pool together resources to provide this basic necessity? Students of all ages would have a safe, reliable place to receive proper education. Churches could teach digital literacy to neighbors who need help accessing proper healthcare or need assistance applying online for jobs. Perhaps, a resident attempting to start a business might be sitting in this Friends-themed internet café next to a skilled graphic designer. Not to mention, residents could be taught how to connect with their loved ones using online platforms. The church would then not just be a hub for internet but also for community collaboration and connection. 

The call of Jesus is to care for the whole of our neighbor, both body and soul, mind and spirit. We are asked by our Father to meet our neighbor’s physical needs and in doing so, care for their soul. Jesus, who was God in human form, sought the well-being of the communities He visited by caring for the sick, encouraging people to visit those in prison, communing with the sinner, and even feeding the masses. By providing internet access, a safe space to gather, and offering educational resources, we just might stumble into fulfilling the call of God to love our neighbor and in doing so, usher a little more of God’s Kingdom into our communities.

-Mike Sciascia, Faith in Rural Communities Intern

My name is Mike Sciascia, a former UNC-grad now student at Duke Divinity (go heels!). I enjoy reading, running, woodworking, and watching and playing sports. After graduation, I will be a United Methodist pastor in a rural congregation. “As time passes, I am realizing just how much I love rural communities,” said Mike. “I have always preferred smaller and slower to bigger and faster. I think God had a plan in mind before I even knew it.