When Sam and Allison Nunley learned that a small United Methodist church had bought them a new home, they "cried through the drywall dust on their faces."
On Nov. 22, the Rev. Lew Kizer of Hardins Chapel United Methodist Church presented a $30,000 check to AIDNET of Greene County.
But the Thanksgiving story of how the $30,000 made its way to the Horse Creek community to buy a used double-wide started several weeks ago.
After the tornadoes hit in April, the congregation at Hardins Chapel UMC knew they wanted to do something to help. But they made a deliberate decision to wait until the avalanche of donations and workers that came immediately after the tragedy had disappeared.
“We thought we would do something when it settled down, when we could make a bigger impact,” said Kizer.
In August, Hardins Chapel made a final decision to donate all proceeds from their Lord’s Acre Sale to tornado victims. The goal was $30,000 although the annual fundraiser usually cleared about $20,000, used for various mission projects and the building fund.
“The most we ever raised was $25,000,” said Dan Duggar, a Hardins Chapel member, “but we took a vote and that’s what we decided. It was well thought-out and well-discussed.”
Meanwhile, across the county, the Rev. Stephen Burkhart was feeling desperate. The pastor from Elizabethton is a project manager for AIDNET of Greene County.
In addition to all the other families who needed help, Burkhart and an AIDNET board member, Jeff Idell, were bent on helping a family whose damp, moldy mobile home was coming apart at the seams. The four children were constantly sick, and the unemployed father was donating his time and skills to help neighbors rebuild.
The family didn’t have enough money to repair or replace their own home, and they wouldn’t ask for help. But Burkhart and Idell were praying to find them a home before Christmas.
'Heavy on my heart'
“This family has been heavy on my heart,” said Burkhart, a former chemical engineer who now pastors at Carter County United Methodist Parish in the Johnson City District. “The dad and mom have helped many families to rebuild at no charge, without jealousy or expectation. They’ve just been praying and trusting.”
Burkhart and others had long searched for an affordable, used mobile home for Sam and Allison Nunley and their four children: Kaleb, 14; Tyler, 13; Jocelynn, 4; and Spencer, 3. Every possibility fell through, dashing the hopes of a family that has struggled with illness (the children have allergies and the youngest has battled a dangerous staph infection since birth) and unemployment (Sam was laid off from a pallet manufacturer in August).
When the tornadoes roared past the Nunley house in April, damage to the mobile home seemed manageable. Later, Sam Nunley discovered that rain water had been pouring in between the walls, causing mold and other problems.
Allison searched for a replacement home on the internet, while Sam looked for another job. He also worked six days a week helping Burkhart and others restore homes and property that had not received aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other groups.
“We have a roof over our head,” says Sam, age 37. “It’s not the best in the world, but there are a lot of other people out here who don’t have a clue about what they’re going to do. There are people who are hurting bad out here, and they need to be helped.”
When it came time to focus on their Lord’s Acre Sale, the people at Hardins Chapel didn’t know about the Nunley family. But they did know that tornado victims in Greene County were still struggling. “We as a congregation said we were going to go full force on this,” said the pastor of the Morristown District church.
Church members got to work. They picked 75 gallons of blackberries to make jars and jars of blackberry jam. They made peach butter, pies, cakes, afghans and quilts. They chopped firewood, shined shoes, sacked potatoes and washed cars. The children even got into the act, making brownies, cookies, and chocolate-covered popcorn. Some of the goods and goodies were sold over the course of months, while others were saved for the big Lord’s Acre Sale auction on Oct. 15.
Kizer and his wife, Ashlee, planted a garden, using the tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro they grew to make and sell salsa. “Truly, this is what the Lord calls us to do,” Kizer said. “The Lord’s Acre Sale is symbolic of a time when people devoted part of their farmland, produce, or livestock to be auctioned off for the Lord’s work. The idea remains the same.”
See photos on Facebook.
See also: "Lord's Acre Sale provides wall-to-wall fun" (The Call, 10-23-09)
The Lord’s Acre Sale was a success, raising $90 over the $30,000 goal, Kizer said.
Several other churches in the community participated by donating or buying goods, Duggar said. About 225 came for the legendary covered-dish dinner; about 120 attended the auction.
“We help each other,” Duggar said. “We go to their sales, and they come to our sales. But this year we had an even greater purpose.”
The Lord’s Acre Sale auctioneer was Wayne Bettis, who has fulfilled that role for 30 years. Bettis is also public relations coordinator for AIDNET. He was aware of the Nunley family’s situation but AIDNET donations had been running low.
When Hardins Chapel leaders met with AIDNET leaders about the $30,000, church members said they “wanted to help a family or two with the money, but they didn’t know who,” Bettis said.
Later that day, Burkhart received a call from Bettis, who said that a small church had raised $30,000 and wanted it donated for the Nunley family.
Burkhart had just learned of a used mobile home available in Rogersville. He made arrangements to inspect it, without knowing where the money was coming from.
The estimated cost -- after renovations for the children’s allergies and a contractor’s reduced price for transportation and set-up -- was $30,000.
Burkhart just had one thing to say to Bettis when he called: “Do you want to see a 290-pound man cry?”
When Burkhart next saw Sam and Allison, they were working on another’s family home. “God just bought you a house,” the pastor told them, just one week before Thanksgiving.
“They cried through the drywall dust on their faces,” Burkhart said.
“It will take a couple of weeks to get the home ready to move into,” Burkhart said, describing how the carpet in the 16-year-old double-wide will be replaced with laminate flooring, the shingles replaced with a metal roof. “All I care about is getting Sam’s children out of harm’s way by Christmas.”
Allison, age 34, is pleased about the kitchen island and the “cowboy-brown bedrooms” in the house, but after several disappointments she’s reluctant to get her hopes too high. “We’re so afraid it’s not going to happen.”
Sam Nunley has cleared off a lot behind his old trailer where the new one will rest. He says meeting and working with Burkhart “has changed my life” and AIDNET is “a godsend” to the community. He tells story after story of how families have been helped by volunteer crews from as far away as Indiana and Pennsylvania -- and how help is still desperately needed. “People just don’t know how bad it is.”
He wants to express his thanks. “There are people who need to be thanked,” he said. “There’s been a lot of bad, but there’s been a lot of good.”
“Everybody just needs to be thanked for what they’ve done.”
To schedule a work team, email Rev. Stephen Burkhart or call (423) 895-1296. Donate money through AIDNET of Greene County, or write a check to your local church with "Holston disaster response, Advance #143" on the memo line.