When Pastor Jimmy Jones arrived in Wagener in 2002 with big plans to build a Bible institute and establish an outreach mission to the poor in the tiny Aiken County town, the reception among townspeople ranged from chilly suspicion to outright distain.
“No one could have been more pessimistic or skeptical of them when they first came to town,” Mayor Mike Miller recalled. “I was a councilman then, and I wondered, ‘What are they doing here?’”
On a tour of the property Jones had purchased, Miller made a sly dig about the late Tammy Faye Baker, wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, whose mega-Christian enterprises collapsed in a money and sex scandal.
“I said, ‘Where do you get all the money to do this?’” Miller remembered. “Jimmy turned and looked at me and said, ‘From the Lord,’ and I said, ‘Who signs the checks from the Lord?’”
Jones, whose Christ Central Ministries are at the heart of a new public-private proposal to resolve the problems of the homeless in downtown Columbia, is accustomed to questions about his unorthodox 15-year ministry to the poor.
Jones founded Christ Central Ministries formally in 1997, but it was an outreach that began five years earlier out of an Elmwood Avenue Church of God prayer ministry and a homeless man’s request for food. Although he was only a member of the Columbia church, “The homeless started calling me ‘pastor’ and hacked off everybody,” Jones recalled. Jones has since gone to seminary and become an ordained minister.
Also since then, Jones has inspired, confounded and annoyed with his “loaves and fishes” approach to community problems of hunger, homelessness, drug abuse and illiteracy.
“We stay focused on what causes poverty, what produces poverty, what exacerbates it,” Jones said in an interview. “It’s more important to find out what’s causing this line of poverty, that’s causing this line of effect.”
Jones said he makes no direct appeals for funds, although at least $1.3 million in donations flowed through Christ Central in 2011. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit owns properties in communities across the state, often transforming them from dilapidated structures to handsome buildings that serve as apartments for women and children in need, veterans and recovering drug abusers.
Jones, a Church of God pastor with deep roots in Columbia’s evangelical community, relies on an army of volunteers – 14,000 at current count – many retired professionals with skills to manage what are known as Christ Central Missions.
At last count, his organization had established 38 missions in communities around South Carolina, including Columbia, Lexington, Allendale, Seneca, Aiken and Joanna. Every mission is community-specific and served by a local board of advisors.
As CEO of Christ, Jones heads an organization with two divisions — education, located in Wagener, and missions, with central offices in Aiken. Each division has a president and its own board of directors, overseen by a general executive board of directors. Stu Rodman, a Beaufort town councilman and former Columbia businessman, is chairman of the executive board.
In Columbia, Christ Central provides, among its many outreach programs, daily meals at its location on Main Street. It houses women and children at the 40-bed Hannah House, helps men overcome drug addiction and learn new job skills at the 58-bed Bethel House, and is preparing to offer intensive, weeklong GED courses at its Hope Plaza location at Main and Elmwood Avenue.
Christ Central has graduated 140 students in its GED program, after experimenting with a variety of ways to ensure participants complete the classes. It abandoned three-week classes after research showed too many dropped out because of transportation, child care and job issues.
While Jones is not a fan of government handouts, contending it keeps too many in cyclical poverty, he is also impatient with the political status quo at the State House, which allows industries such as payday loan companies to flourish and, Jones feels, to victimize the poor. He recalls one client who signed a 100-year loan.
Since the end of the Civil War and the collapse of South Carolina’s economy, he contends, “South Carolina has mastered the art of being pitiful” and created two classes, the haves and the have-nots.
“Right now, for all these years, there have been two cultures,” he said. “The culture of hate for the homeless, and the culture of the homeless lifestyle. If you don’t know the lifestyle, you can hate, but nothing ever changes. The two cultures have to change in this city.”
He and others at Christ Central believes assistance leavened by faith can turn lives around and get people to a point where they can be stable and productive.
“We like to take on projects that nobody else takes on,” said Rodman, the board chairman. “We truly believe that the work ethnic is part of people’s recovery. A part of what I like to create is self-esteem. We have no interest in just warehousing people. We would primarily want to see those people have an opportunity.”
And while Jones’ deep Christian faith fuels his ministry, “When we think about it, our emphasis is on the individual and his plight, it’s not on the denomination,” said Jones, who rarely talks theology.
“Christians have been taught through 2,000 years that we have to respond to the needs of poverty through charity. Many Christians do not have money to give, but they have either talent, time or goods. They will bring you their clothes, they will bring you their shoes, and it’s amazing that God chooses to fuel a ministry of this size through what people don’t want.”
“We just lift up needs to people,” and often they respond by paying off a building mortgage or supplementing a mission budget, said Rodman, the board chairman.
Miller, the Wagener mayor, said while there remain some skeptics in his town, he ended up “eating crow” when it came to the Jones’ ministry. Shortly after Jones announced the purchase of property for his institute, Miller approached him about two mentally ill renters who were living in filth, surrounded by dozens of pets, in his family’s rental property.
“I had a terrible mess on my hands,” Miller said. “The town was fed up with it and businesses were fed up with it, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Within two weeks, Christ Central relocated the couple and the animals, he said. Then, Miller said, Jones agreed to move and renovate the squalid house and another abandoned house Miller owned, transforming them into attractive buildings for the education institute.
“I think they have benefited the town,” Miller said. As one of its Wagener missions, Christ Central operates the Women’s Well, a place for women to gather and enjoy friendship and crafts.
“Some months back I had a reason to walk in there,” the mayor said. “I was totally impressed with what is going on. The room was full of ladies and most of them were elderly. They were having a ball. They weren’t sitting at home in a dark room. ... If that is the only thing that Christ Central does in this town, that is worth it.”