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Sulphur Springs to Milwaukee - The Compassion Connection

MILWAUKEE-The state of Wisconsin is famous for a lot of different things. It’s home to storied sports teams like the Green Bay Packers, was the home for two popular sit-coms, Happy Daysand That '70s Show, and is known for extremely cold winters and extremely warm people. But they are also famous for something else. Dairy.

The state of Wisconsin was the biggest producer of dairy products until 1993, when the larger and more populous state of California surpassed Wisconsin in dairy production. However, Wisconsin remains in second place in national dairy production, with a little over 13 percent of all dairy products coming from Wisconsin, or 26,117,000 pounds in 2011 alone. However, the number of dairy farms has been reduced significantly, from over 160,000 farms in 1930 to fewer than 20,000 in 2011, even though milk production has risen each year.

But the state of Wisconsin isn’t the only place famous for dairy. The city of Sulphur Springs, in Northeast Texas, is also very famous for dairy production. With the approval by voters in 1929 for a bond package that would finance paving roads throughout the county, Hopkins County secured a processing plant in 1937 with the opening of the Carnation Milk Company processing plant. From 1936 to 1949, 200 class-A dairies were established in the county. In 1950, Hopkins County became the leading county in milk production on a cow-per-acre basis, and by 1990 Hopkins County was the leading dairy county in the state, with 500 dairy farms producing roughly 17 percent of the state total.

So Hopkins County and the state of Wisconsin have quite a lot in common, but they’re also roughly 900 miles away from each other, making a physical connection somewhat unlikely.

But 14 years ago, something changed. The First Baptist Church of Sulphur Springs, then pastored by David Hardage, now the Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, decided to partner with Grace Community Church in Milwaukee for a mission trip. Brit Fisher, Children’s Minister at First Baptist, shared on how the trip got started.

“I guess it was [Hardage] and his connections with some Texas people who lived in Milwaukee,” explained Fisher.

Every year since Sulphur Springs FBC has sent a team to Wisconsin, though the mission focus may have changed a little. This year the mission trip partnered with four different churches, Mercy Memorial Baptist Church, Jericho Baptist Church, Ephesians Missionary Baptist Church, and Northwest Baptist Church.

According to Fisher, now the leader of the trip, preparation is the key to a successful trip.

“You’ve got to go up there first and discover what their needs are and determine if you’ll have the man power and the skills that it will require to take on a job or a task,” said Fisher. “Then you try to match up the volunteers with the needs in Milwaukee and God always puts it together and makes it all happen.”

The goals of the mission at each different church are quite different as well. Milwaukee Mission Trip member Ruth Davis shared on what her responsibilities were while on the trip.

“I do crafts in VBS; this year both at Mercy Memorial and at Northwest. And then if I’m needed to help other places when we’re through with VBS then the team does that also.”

Fisher explained the responsibilities of the entire team while in Milwaukee.

“This year we had three teams doing construction [at Jericho, Ephesians, and Northwest], and one team doing two VBS [at Mercy and Northwest] during the daytime. Construction could be building new buildings; it could be making old buildings look new. Anything we can do to support the pastors and the churches in Milwaukee.”

Vacation Bible School was held at Mercy Memorial in the mornings and at Northwest Baptist Church in the afternoons. Mercy Memorial was founded in 1987 by Reverend Harold L. Moore after he took over what was then an abandoned Catholic church. He has since helped inner city kids by partnering with Let’s Move Milwaukee and other organizations.

Northwest Baptist Church is pastored by Tom Harrington, a native Texan that still frequently visits his family in the Dallas area. He came to Milwaukee answering what he felt was the call for his life. Sulphur Springs has been partnered with Northwest Baptist since 2006, when current youth minister, Ryan Soderberg, had just begun his internship. He shared on his evolving connection with them.

“They came to our church this one year, and just rocked my world, and I love them all,” said Soderberg. “But seriously, the first year that I interned they were here, and I just got connected with them that week because my pastor asked me to be the point person to go run and get stuff for them. Over the years I got to know them all and their heart for the Lord.”

Construction responsibilities at Jericho Baptist, pastored by Dr. Anthony D. Burns, included designing and building a prayer garden behind the building and starting Stage 2 of Jericho’s construction plan.

Jericho Missionary Baptist Church’s original location burned down in January, 1962. From then until July of 1963 the congregation met in the house of Reverend A.L. Robbins. From July 1963 until June 2011 the church would stay at 1923 North 12th Street, with renovations in 1969, 1978, and 1980.

Dr. Burns became the pastor of Jericho in 1993. When Jericho decided to move again in June 2011, they purchased a former car dealership located at 8086 North 76th Street, and immediately began renovating the property, financed by the congregation and initially, without any help from banks or other financial institutions.

With the help of SSFBC and other churches, Jericho completed Stage 1 of their renovations, a worship center and lobby, by March of this year. When the group from Sulphur Springs returned last week, they decided to proceed with Stage 2, a multi-purpose room that includes classrooms and a recording studio.

Construction at Ephesians Missionary Baptist (founded on December 17, 1983 by Rev. Joe H. Todd) was much more subdued. The Ephesians team helped Lakeland Baptist Association’s Clyde Hamer (affectionately known as “Claw Hammer”) implement the landscaping plan for the parking lot of the church. Milwaukee city legislation for parking lots requires a certain amount of landscaping per square foot of parking space, so Hamer and the team utilized specialized construction equipment to break up concrete slabs, plant over 60 bushes and trees, and move over 20 yards of mulch.

Josh Gaines, student of Texas A&M University and first time volunteer for the Milwaukee trip, remarked on his responsibilities on the trip.

“Me? Just basically landscape work. I did learn how to drive a front-end skid loader, and that was pretty cool.”

And since SSFBC has been serving at Northwest Baptist for six years, there was very little to do for that construction team. A few rooms were painted, several lamps were replaced in the youth room, and sound was wired into the new activities center. Still, Soderberg is thankful.

“It encourages a lot of us, even us Christians. It’s interesting that some people have a bigger heart for our church than people that go to our church, as contradictory as that seems. But anyway it encourages in different ways. It gives us different opportunities to serve through the spaces that you guys have created and just taking care of our church. And you care for the people too. A lot of people don’t necessarily feel that from other church members, but the fact that other people come up and show them that love is pretty cool.”

Soderberg raises a good point. Why do people who otherwise wouldn’t have any connection with churches in Wisconsin put forth such an effort? “Mama” Ruth Davis has the answer.

“Just to see all things that we’re capable of doing to help other churches, whether it be construction work or Vacation Bible School or just being a witness to those around us; and also to become more acquainted with some of the people that are traveling with us that I’m not well acquainted with.”

And this isn’t the only trip that Sulphur Springs sends out. This year alone they also sent trips to Bastrop, Austin, Lone Star, New Orleans, Chicago, San Diego, Nicaragua and Nepal, and there’s even a “trip” that focuses on the city of Sulphur Springs itself. Sulphur Springs First Baptist Church, now led by Pastor Mark Bryant, truly tries to follow that often quoted verse, Acts 1:8.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere--in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

If you’d like to connect with SSFBC in any way, email them here or call the church at 903-885-0646.