History of National Mission Group Has Roots in Athens Texas
By Lindsay Peyton
In the late 1970s, Pastor Craig Russell was serving as youth director at Chapelwood UMC, when he decided to bring a couple of van-loads of students to a summer camp offered by Mountain T.O.P. (Tennessee Outreach Project), a nonprofit of the Tennessee Conference of the UMC. The ministry serves the physical, spiritual, social, and emotional needs of the people of the Cumberland Mountain range.
Driving back through East Texas to Houston from the service trip, one of his students said something that struck a chord: “Why do we have to go so far?”
There was a need indeed in their own backyard, and Russell realized that there was not something responding in a similar way.
“I took that as a challenge,” he said. “I started to think about it. Why do we need to go somewhere? There were trips you could take in other states, but there was nothing in Texas.”
He called two other youth pastors he knew nearby
--Phil Davis, youth director of St. Paul’s UMC and Jeannie Whitehurst, youth director at First UMC Houston.
In addition, he reached out to Rev. Tony Vinson, a friend from ministry, now serving as DS in the Southwest District, who was then working in Athens, Texas as campus minister for Henderson County College and a small church in Murchison.
“Craig was telling me how he went up into the mountains and helped people,” Vinson said. “It was a transformational experience.”
Vinson also felt that the need in the Athens area was great and was interested in starting a similar operation to Mountain T.O.P. He started calling around and discovered the college where he worked was open to the idea of using its empty dorms in the summer to house volunteers for the service project.
“I went back to Craig and said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Vinson recalled.
Russell said Davis and Whitehurst were also on board. The three ministry leaders agreed to gather students from their ministries and head to Athens.
Before they went, each brainstormed with their own youth members and leaders. That’s how Whitehurst explained that they came up with the logo and the name, which at the time stood for United Methodist Athens Reach-Out Mission by Youth.
At the same time, Whitehurst said that they settled on the colors of red, white and blue for the logo and their t-shirts. They also decided on the names: Color Groups, for the youth and adult volunteers and the Color Group Leaders, who supervised, purchased and delivered necessary supplies to the work teams. The tool, food and program coordinator roles were determined at that time as well.
The first year, 35 youth and adults signed up. Russell, Whitehurst and Davis served as the first Color Group Supervisors, checking frequently on the work teams and buying and delivering supplies. The Department of Human Resources in the area provided clients.
“The week was a success, and we left with no thought of doing it again in the future,” Whitehurst said. “We went back to our regular jobs.”
It wasn’t long, however, before they started getting calls from other youth directors who wanted to organize another camp the following year, in 1978.
Russell was appointed to start a church and would not be able to return. “That was the groundbreaker, and it was good to get things going,” he said. “They kept it going, and they’re making such a difference.”
Davis and Whitehurst took the charge and were joined by the other Houston Youth Directors. Vinson also returned. “We doubled in size,” he recalled. “There were a lot more kids.”
Words spread from those who participated the first year to others in the community. “It was eye-opening for them,” Vinson said. “And they really grew closer to God through all of this work.”
There were 75 students and adults from the Houston area who attended that second camp.
“What happened next I attribute to the Holy Spirit and the hard work of Jeannie Whitehurst,” Vinson said. “I always saw it as Athens-centric, but it got bigger than I could imagine.”
He explained that Whitehurst stepped up and help the group expand, as the third year brought multiple churches and more than 100 interested students.
“People were sharing what we were doing,” Whitehurst said. “It was obvious that they were getting the message from Christ that they were doing Christ’s work.”
Her own son John got the call to ministry during the second trip. He now serves as pastor at Grace Crossing UMC.
“It was the movement of the Holy Spirit through U.M.ARMY,” Whitehurst said. “It just bowled me over. I realized this was my purpose in life. I no longer wanted to be a youth pastor. I wanted to do U.M. ARMY.”
She gathered other area youth pastors together to see if they were willing to make the organization official. “I’m ready to go forward with this; are you ready to go forward?” she recalls asking.
The answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ The Texas Conference also agreed to take U.M. ARMY under the UMC umbrella and provided a $5,000 grant to provide for t-shirts, brochures and other camp necessities. By 1979, U.M. ARMY was officially incorporated as a nonprofit.
Whitehurst became the executive director and set up an office in her dining room. She worked without pay to build the nonprofit from the ground up for the next five years.
“It was an easy decision to make,” she said. “My husband and I were so committed to this.”
The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke became the nonprofit’s spiritual foundation. “We ask, who is our neighbor”” Whitehurst said. “How can we serve them in love?”
Whitehurst resigned in 1988, when she felt the organization had grown beyond what she felt she could do on her own. She went to work full-time as a Diaconal Minister at St. Peter’s UMC, and for her replacement, recruited Bishop Cynthia Harvey, who had attended camps and was the volunteer youth director at Foundry UMC.
By the end of her time as executive director, Whitehurst said other chapters of U.M. ARMY were established in four regions: Texas/Louisiana, North by Northwest Texas, Rio Texas (formerly Southwest Texas), North East, Mid-Atlantic. Interest in replicating the model popped up around the U.S., and a national board of directors formed.
Whitehurst continued to direct summer camps for U.M. ARMY until 1993 and served for a couple of years on the national board. She attended a 40th anniversary national board meeting at Camp Allen last October.
She was surprised to see many familiar faces at the event, former campers who became leaders. They all had stories to share about U.M. ARMY – and how significant it had been for them.
Whitehurst is excited that U.M. ARMY is now in 19 states – and that not a lot had changed otherwise since its earliest days.
“I was astonished the organization has remained consistent with its philosophy, theology, purpose and organization over the last 40 years,” she said. “This can only be attributed to the work of God.”
Whitehurst has personally witnessed God’s presence as clients, participants and the board members were changed by U.M. ARMY.
“I felt called by God to be director of U.M. ARMY, and it became my passion and purpose in life,” she said. “I’m extremely proud of this organization. It was my baby, and it feels good to see that baby grow into adulthood. We never even expected it to go beyond that first year.”
Every summer, U.M. ARMY sends out troops of youth and adult volunteers, marching towards a better future for families in need of household repairs. The “United Methodist Action Reach-Out Mission by Youth” connects high school and college students with adults who are unable to maintain and repair their homes. While helping others, volunteers enjoy spiritual growth, fellowship and leadership development. The nonprofit, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary of, traces its roots to the TAC.