Through their involvement with Caring Hands Ministries, Ann and Charles Fleming have met a lot of people with an aversion to religion over the years.
This month, the couple started a church for those people.
The Appalachian Hope Center in Clermont held its first service at 3:30 p.m. March 3 to accommodate a crowd that often works the early shift.
Though the congregation is still small — fewer than 20 people — the new church is more interested in building quality relationships than filling the room to capacity.
Ann Fleming said the new church “grew out of a need that we saw for people to have a place that they feel comfortable to come.”
Since founding the ministries with the late Mervin Caudell in 1995, thousands of people have sought the ministry’s help for everything from paying their rent and utilities to getting needed items like toiletries and toys for children.
The ministries often hold back-to-school clothing and coat giveaways and other community programs for those in need.
According to its website, the ministry helped 10,000 people in five counties and the southern tip of Appalachia last year.
The church and ministries are located in the same building at 6483 Cleveland Highway in Clermont, and are run by the same people, yet are two separate organizations.
Charles Fleming said he’s met so many people through his work with the ministry who “wouldn’t darken the doors of a church.”
Knowing the people they want to reach aren’t necessarily comfortable with the idea of church, the Flemings have sought to create a comfortable place that welcomes anyone, regardless of their backgrounds.
“Anybody is welcome, regardless to race, creed or the clothes they wear,” Charles Fleming said. “If they’ve just got ragged jeans, that’s just fine. If they can dress better than that, they’re welcome, too.”
Ann Fleming said there are so many people who just don’t feel welcome at other churches.
“People come who are just not comfortable for one reason or another in various local churches,” Ann Fleming said. “Sometimes it’s an economic thing. They may not have what they feel is the required wardrobe even though there may not be a required wardrobe. ... A lot of folks we get have had some hard lives and they just kind of get turned off by what they consider religion.”
She said she meets a lot of people who desperately want a relationship with God but they don’t want to become what they perceive to be hypocritical.
Charles Fleming said the Hope Center isn’t like a lot of churches. He and his wife want their church to be “free.” The way to true freedom, he explains, is through the Gospel.
While the church is funded through offerings, Charles Fleming admits he sometimes forgets to pass the plate around. But they’re more interested in filling hearts than coffers.
“The idea is just to simply share with people how to have a relationship with God and really know him,” Ann Fleming said. “It’s not just ‘OK, I’ve said this prayer once but it hasn’t really effected my life.’ There’s a big difference between those two things.”
Ann Fleming said the church has had a few people come to know Christ in the short time the church has been open.
The Flemings alternate preaching Sunday services. Ann Fleming said she preaches “Bible Survival.” She likes to focus on helping people not just overcome hard times but alter the way they view those hard times.
“Everybody’s had hard times,” Ann Fleming said. “But if we get our admonition from the Lord and his word, we can make our hard times not so hard on ourselves and everybody around us. Or we can make things worse.”
She said a lot of the people she and her husband minister to through both organizations are fighting bitterness. She said the most powerful thing those people can do is learn to forgive.
She explained that while some may feel a need to “get back at” someone who has done them wrong, those feelings only make the situation worse.
“But if we say I’m gonna forgive him and bless him, we can reap what we sow rather than what he sowed,” Ann Fleming said. “That makes a huge difference. One makes us bitter and makes the choices that make things harder on us. The other helps us to have a whole lot more peace inside, and therefore we make better choices.”