Computer ministry grows like mustard seed


Carlos Vega is the proud owner of a new computer refurbished by Mustard Seed Ministries. He's one of 1000 students who was given a free computer last year. Photo by Stan Moore.

 by Susan Passi-Klaus

In a world where owning a computer can help buy success, not everyone – especially disadvantaged school children – can afford the price.  Last year, the small but tech-savvy congregation at Cedar Street United Methodist Church salvaged, refurbished and gave away more than 1,000 computers to students who were doing without the learning tool.

“Anything we can do to advance the life of a child or the life of an adult without hope is doing God’s work,” said the Rev. Karen Jones, pastor of Cedar Street UMC.

When people discover that this 25-member Tyler, Texas, congregation of 70- to 80-year-old former computer know-nothings rallied to become the largest authorized computer-salvage location in East Texas, they begin to understand why Cedar Street’s outreach program is called Mustard Seed Ministries.

Matthew 13:31-32 (NRSV) tells the parable of the mustard seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

“We want to plant hope for the future of these children,” said Rev. Jones. “We want every kid to believe that whatever dream they have for their future is a very real possibility – they can make it happen.”

The computer ministry at Cedar Street is a seed of an idea that has grown into a massive tree with branches that extend to hundreds of families in the largely low-income Hispanic community surrounding the 130 year-old church—and beyond.

It all started eight years ago when Jones decided to offer her aging congregation computer classes. With the oldest student logging on at the age of 96, Jones relied on borrowed computers to teach her beginners. News got out that the church wanted to establish a computer lab and Jones ended up with a windfall of 150 salvaged computers.

“Being good Methodists, we weren’t going to thrown them in the trash,” Jones laughed. “We kept 20 and refurbished the rest of them to give away to every 5th grader at a local elementary school. One hundred and twenty-five kids got a computer that year.”

Word spread to nearby hospitals, county and state offices, non-profit organizations and individuals -”Don’t’ throw away old computers…give them to Cedar Street United Methodist!” Pallet after pallet of old computers kept coming and the list of folks willing to volunteer to repair and restore them kept growing. It now takes three locations to house the ministry, including the converted parsonage, a storage facility and the whole upstairs of the church. The staff of “techs” has grown from 4 to 25 – many retirees from the local community who don’t even attend the church.

“Our techs joke that working for the ministry keeps them out of trouble,” Jones laughed. “But they’ll also acknowledge that it keeps their minds active because they continue to learn new technology. Many will say that the best part is that it keeps them in touch with kids because they go to all the school distributions.”

This is a “no strings attached” program. There is no charge for the PCs – which come complete with keyboard, mouse, speakers, monitor, Microsoft Office XP, Office Suite Professional, anti-virus protection and five educational programs. All the equipment is guaranteed for life.

The only thing they ask is that children who receive the computers do ten hours of service at a church or non-profit. It even counts if they mow a neighbor’s yard or volunteer at their school.

“It’s a circle thing,” said Jones. “We believe that if someone gives you a gift, then it’s important to give back in some way. You get a gift, you give a gift.

“We give them the tools and even teach them how to use those tools, but they have to use them productively to build their own future and to make their own dreams come true.”

Jones said they see child after child whose life is turned around by this high-tech kindness.

“Parents come in and tell us how their child was failing the school tests, but with the software we provided, they were able to pass,” she said. “For many of them, it’s the first time they even consider that college could be a possibility.

“We’ve been offered big bucks to make Mustard Seed a commercial operation, but it’s not our mission,” Jones said. “We are totally devoted to doing it God’s way.”

Update: Mustard Seed 2 will open May 1, 2010 in Port Arthur Texas. It will begin as a teaching ministry and later evolve into refurbishing computers. In addition, Mustard Seed Ministries is currently raising funds so that they create their own Internet Service Provider which will allow East Texas school children free access to the Internet.








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