Head upstairs at Cedar Street UMC in Tyler, and you might just forget that you’re in a church. You may think you’ve entered a computer repair shop instead. You have simply landed in the headquarters of the congregation’s Mustard Seed Ministries, which refurbishes computers to give to students and provides classes in computer literacy.
A handful of techs will be hard at work, with machines in various stages of rescue. All types of computer parts are at the ready, in case of need of assistance. Outside, two additional buildings have also been dedicated to storage.
“It’s a complete manufacturing facility,” founder Rev. Karen Jones said. “People call us for parts. They know we have everything.”
If it’s computer-related in Tyler, chances are Mustard Seed Ministries is somehow involved.
For instance, residents of Smith and Van Zandt Counties know to donate their defunct machines at Cedar Street UMC for its cyber-scrubbing service.
Students are aware that they can show up at the church with an ID and receive a refurbished computer at no cost. The ministry also makes annual deliveries to fourth and fifth graders at the nearby elementary school, after the kids complete a public service project.
The list is long. Mustard Seed Ministries offers computer classes at area schools and free repair services for families in need. The organization also stocks computers in the offices of United Methodist churches districtwide, as well as other area nonprofits.
The Mustard Seed Ministries Mobile Lab, a trailer equipped with a mini lab, generator and internet, has been used in emergency response for FEMA and at shelters. It is also used off-site for immigrants needing to fill out paperwork at Justice For Our Neighbors – East Texas, a ministry providing affordable legal services to immigrants.
Mustard Seed also provides a Boots & Buddies program for children of deployed military parents, providing families with computers so they can keep in touch. A day at school is scheduled for that child, complete with cultural activities from the country where the parent is deployed and a conference call with that parent.
Each computer donated by Mustard Seed Ministries comes with a Microsoft suite installed. To cover the costs, the church offers a few select computers for sale at a discounted price. “We look up the refurbished price online and halve it,” Jones said. “People can walk out with a full set up for $50.”
She explained that Mustard Seed Ministries came unexpectedly – and has evolved naturally over time. She has served as pastor of Cedar Street UMC for about 25 years.
About 20 years ago, Jones recognized a technology need at her primarily elderly congregation. She often heard parishioners express frustrations with computers. Since she has a background in education, she decided to put together a class.
“We borrowed about 15 computers from all around,” she said. “We set them up in the fellowship hall and did a four-week class.”
By the time the course finished, the church members had all spread the word to their friends. “After we got done, there were about 15 more people ready for a class,” Jones said. “And we’ve been doing it every Wednesday since.”
Now, one of the largest Sunday school classrooms has been transformed into a computer lab, with free beginner and intermediate classes offered each week.
After the first couple of months of classes, demand only grew, and Jones realized a need for permanent computers. The borrowed ones had to be returned to their owners.
“We put out feelers,” Jones said. “Then, an anonymous donor came forward with 50 computers.”
The only catch was that all needed to be refurbished. “We resurrected enough for class,” Jones said. “And we had a few left over.”
Then, the same donor called again – with another 150 computers. Again, the church volunteers went to work fixing the machines, which were donated to 5th graders at the nearby elementary school. “And that’s what got us started,” Jones said.
During COVID-19, when learning went online, the ministry was needed more than ever. “There were a lot of kids who didn’t have computers,” Jones said. “They started lining up at our back door.”
Sometimes, between 75 and 100 people would be standing outside the church. “My techs were staying here 10 to 12 hours a day,” Jones said. “We worked each day, pumping out 20 to 25 computers.”
A couple of the technicians are from Cedar Street, and others from nearby UMCs. There are also a couple from different denominations who volunteer.
For a while, Jones explained, Mustard Seed Ministries became a registered 501c3. Then, the group decided to return to simply being a ministry of the church.
“We are proud to have the cross and flame,” she said. “It’s part of who we are.”
Jones explained that Mustard Seed Ministries has made the church a vital part of the community. People of all ages stop by for repairs, computers and classes. The congregation also provides free WIFI in the parking lot for students who want to do homework after school.
“This neighborhood knows who and what we are,” Jones said. “And every little church can find their niche. It doesn’t have to be something big and spectacular. It just has to be something that meets the needs of the community.”
As the mustard seed shows in Scripture, the Kingdom can grow from the smallest, humblest beginnings.
“It doesn’t matter how large you are,” Jones said. “You can be small, as long as you get in touch with the community – and help meet the need.”
She explained that Cedar Street UMC usually has about 20 people in the pews on Sundays – but that doesn’t stop them from being a force for good in the neighborhood.
“These people are dedicated to being there for the community,” she said. “That’s their focus – doing whatever they can do.”