“Out of the ashes, we rise.” These are the words that adorn the bulletin board just inside Branches United Methodist Mission in Florida City, Florida. They are words of hope, words of remembrance. They are a response of faith in the wake of the May 2010 fire that destroyed Branches United Methodist Church and its beloved community playground. They are a testament to the reality of all that God has done since that fateful day.
At Chester United Methodist Church, we learned about the fire just weeks after we had returned from a week-long mission trip to Branches. We grieved at the news that this community who we had come to love had suddenly been struck by tragedy. We yearned for a way to respond, but could do little more at the time than send donations. Ultimately, our congregation resolved to return, to plan another trip to Branches and help them rebuild. This trip took place just a few weeks ago.
During the week of April 15 through 23, a group of 20 volunteers, seven youth and 13 adults, spent their Spring Break at Branches. For those of us returning, we were amazed with what we saw as we walked onto the property for the first time since the fire. Aside from the changes in scenery, Branches remains the same. They continue to host a daily after-school program for children in the community. They go on as a place where locals can receive help with their taxes. They are still an alternative for youth who desire a better future in a society that tells them that is impossible. Even more so than before, they are a beacon of hope in a community riddled with drugs, gangs, violence, and poverty. They survive as living proof that no matter what evil or pain may come our way, “God is bigger.” On Sunday morning, they taught us their adaptation on a traditional call and response in which they proclaim: “God is bigger: All the time. And all the time: God is bigger.”
For the youth and adults from our church who were able to witness God’s obvious work through Branches, the experience was life-changing. We found that God is truly present at Branches. God is present in Kim, the missionary, Audrey, the pastor, and all of the other staff and volunteers who devote their lives to this community. God is present in the smiles of the children and youth, who own so little, but know such joy. Finally, God is present in each one of us, not only in changes we made to improve Branches’ facilities and property, but in the changes made within our hearts by which we have learned that true fulfillment in this life is not found in things we can purchase or consume, but in a life lived for Jesus Christ and serving those he holds most dear.
Out of the ashes, Branches has arisen. And after a week of serving and being served there, we shall never forget how much bigger God truly is.