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Oaks of Righteousness

A woodcutting ministry builds new bonds

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Winnie Gillespie could not believe what she was seeing.

Living on a 40-acre homestead about 10 miles outside of Detroit Lakes, Minn., she stood in her yard and watched about a dozen men climbing trees and cutting down branches. A few operated chainsaws and a few more fed logs into wood splitters. Several volunteers carried branches and brush and made woodpiles.

“Not all of the guys are lumberjacks, but they followed my instructions really well,” she joked.

In late summer 2014, the ministry known as the Progressive Woodcutter’s Group—a coy reference to the progressive dinner concept in which participants travel from home to home—found out that Winnie, age 82, needed help after her husband of 62 years had died two years earlier. They piled into trucks and spent a morning and part of an afternoon showing Christ’s love in action.

Since its start-up in 2014, the ministry has helped several parishioners of Community Alliance Church in Detroit Lakes as well as those outside of the church. The ministry is intended not only to assist those in the area who rely on wood for winter heating but also to create bonds between men who might not see each other unless they are wearing flannel shirts and steel-toed boots.

In this community, about three hours north of the Twin Cities, there’s still a mentality that says you should hunker down for the winter, it’s not polite to ask for help, and people should suffer through trials on their own. Winnie’s husband was involved in a serious work accident in 1968 and had battled through multiple surgeries. When he died in 2012, Winnie figured she’d still have to endure the winter challenges by herself.

“I thought I wouldn’t need the help, that I would get it all done sooner or later,” she says. “I looked at this as something I had to walk through, even though God knows the way.”

When fellow Community Alliance member Dennis Pausch heard about her, he decided to do something. He asked Winnie if she could use help on her homestead, knowing that winter was on the way. He persisted, and eventually Winnie agreed to let him come out and see what needed to be done. He noticed that there were many trees ready to be cut. He called a few friends, and they started the project within days.

Dennis had the idea to start the ministry after he heard that one of the Community Alliance pastors was struggling with back problems. A few friends in the church decided to head out on a Saturday to do some wood splitting. “He was a bit reluctant to receive the help at first but in the end was blessed by the men’s desire to do this for him,” says Dennis. “The men enjoyed their time together and tossed around the possibility of doing more of the same.”

Photo by Wagoner Portrait Studio
Since then, the ministry has grown to about 8 to 12 guys. “We usually work from 7:00 a.m. until noon on Saturdays, sometimes with breakfast and sometimes with coffee—which is often provided by the recipients wanting to do their part,” he says. “[The ministry] soon became a way to bless widows, single moms, and those recuperating from health issues.”

In one case last summer, the local Chamber of Commerce asked members of the group if they could help a military veteran who needed a woodpile moved into his basement. The veteran was debilitated after recuperating from cancer surgery. Dennis says it’s the only time they have surprised someone, since they normally schedule the woodcutting ahead of time. Another case involved a single mom whose husband had been incarcerated. As needs arise, the ministry makes decisions about who can help, what equipment is available, and when they can all get together.

Yet the ministry has decided not to focus on the level of need in the community but rather on the desire to be a blessing. Dennis says the goal is to show love without the qualification of the recipient having a big need. That creates a much healthier ministry, he says, because those involved do not end up seeing the Progressive Woodcutter’s Group as a duty but as something that compels them solely by the love of Christ as a service.

One lasting result from the ministry is that it has helped men get connected who do not go to the same service or who would normally not get to know each other. “Relationships developed between men who had little to visit about before this group came together,” Dennis says. “It is fun to see them bonding and enjoying coffee together during the fellowship time.”

Reverend Joel Arndt, the senior pastor at Community Alliance, agrees, witnessing how the woodcutting ministry has grown quickly and created bonds between those involved. “There are guys in our church who would not have rubbed shoulders eight months ago who are now hanging out and enjoying fellowship together,” he says. “Guys in a church sometimes don’t know where to fit in or know where they are needed, yet they are still craving fellowship.”

Another big surprise for Dennis is that equipment needs have not been an issue. The ministry involves many components. Besides the actual woodcutting with chainsaws, the men also clear brush, split wood, and stack it into piles, chores that require many hands and many pieces of equipment. Some of the men have their own equipment, but others have come forward and offered gear they don’t use anymore or loaned trucks equipped for wood hauling. Since the ministry is a blessing for anyone, Dennis says God has provided the equipment they need to do the work.

For many churches, ministries that go beyond the walls and beyond the norm are even more important in an age of technology and lack of social engagement. It’s too easy to get lost. Pastor Arndt says the Community Alliance Church attracts at least 500 to 600 attendees every Sunday, and men in particular are sometimes not sure how to get involved or use their skills.

Winnie Gillespie is glad she didn’t put up too much of a fight and let the men invade her property and help with the woodcutting. They even did some other chores, including fixing one of her vehicles, and she served them lunch as a reward.

“We just like to be a blessing with no hidden agenda,” says Dennis. Sounds like they are doing that in spades.

4 responses to Oaks of Righteousness

  1. I live in Hayesville N.C. I Have 28 yrs
    of carpentry experience so I call my self
    A carpenter
    Just wanted to know if there is anything around here like the oaks of righteousness
    I do have time to do some work when needed . Thanks Lynn

  2. My grandpa is in charge of this ministry and I know how good it is. They have helped a lot of people

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