SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (Oct. 12, 2018) – In two months, United Methodists in Sevierville will get to see their church custodian and pastor on a Hallmark Channel Christmas show with Amy Grant.
On Wednesday morning, Oct. 10, a Nashville production crew came to First United Methodist Church to interview and tape Mary Patterson, leader of the Appalachian Relief Fund, and the Rev. Jeff Lambert. The fellowship hall was decorated for Christmas and about 25 church members, some wearing their holiday sweaters, watched and provided an audience.
“She has a heart for Jesus and those who are in need, especially children,” said Lambert, referring to Patterson, who was the star of the day.
Patterson is not a church member at First Sevierville. She’s the church housekeeper. She’s also the founder of a mission that has been providing food, school supplies, shoes, clothing, and Christmas gifts for low-income families in Scott County since 2004.
“I’ve known Mary for three and a half years,” Lambert said. “When we hired her to be our housekeeper, I knew she had been a missionary and was still doing some mission work. I had no idea, and neither did she, how our church and community would respond.”
Since Patterson came to work at First Sevierville, the congregation has partnered with her to raise money and help deliver gifts to the community around Winfield Baptist Church in Winfield, Tennessee.
“They are so good to me here,” Patterson said of the First Sevierville congregation. “They have supported this mission since day one.”
Last Christmas, First Sevierville collected 1,000 toys for children in Scott County. This fall, the congregation filled up an 18-foot trailer with school supplies and shoes.
“Our youth went with her to unload the truck and help hand out the supplies,” Lambert said. “There must have been 400-500 people who showed up. We gave everything away.”
Inspired by First Sevierville’s participation, Patterson recently expanded her Appalachian Relief Fund ministry into Sevier County. This December, she will lead the collection and delivery of gifts at Winfield Baptist on Dec. 1 and at First Sevierville on Dec. 8.
Hallmark Channel and Amy Grant, a contemporary Christian musician, apparently learned about Patterson’s ministry and asked to include Appalachian Relief Fund in a Dec. 10 Christmas special. Patterson was invited to the taping of the Christmas concert, featuring Grant and her husband Vince Gill, in Nashville on Oct. 2.
“This is such an honor. It really hasn’t sunk in, that Amy Grant picked me out of all the missions,” Patterson said. “She really cares about missions.”
On Wednesday, Patterson sat under the lights in First Sevierville and repeated her testimony over and over for the Nashville production crew. They stopped her a few times, saying her “voice sounds dry” and gave her water to “wet your whistle.” They periodically re-powdered her face and told her to smile.
“I love Mary and appreciate everything she does,” said church member Phil Hirsch, who came to watch the taping with his wife Sue. He said he felt sorry for Patterson for being "on the hot seat … I could see the torture she was going through.”
Lambert joked that the production crew had to “touch up” his head with makeup to reduce the shine under the lights. “I don’t know why they had to do that,” said Lambert, who is bald.
In the TV interview, Patterson talked about her lifelong desire to do mission work. She went to Brazil at one point, living on a houseboat on the Amazon, walking into the jungle to help people.
Knee surgery forced her to focus on a local ministry. After watching WBIR anchor Bill Williams’ segments on helping the needy, Patterson called Williams in 2004 to ask for recommendations. He suggested working in Scott County, where poverty rates are high.
“There’s a lot of people around here that I have found need help just as much,” Patterson said. “You don’t have to go out of the country to make a difference in somebody’s life.”
Patterson retired as a medical surgical technician from LeConte Medical Center about 14 years ago. She said she took the custodian job at First Sevierville because she has rheumatoid arthritis and needs to stay active.
Chris Riggs has been driving the truck for Appalachian Relief Fund since 2007. A ministry that began in the trunk of Patterson’s car now requires an 18-foot trailer several times a year, he said.
“God’s grown it exponentially. Having seen it through the years, I’m amazed,” he said.
Witnessing the many children whose Christmases are brighter because of Patterson’s ministry will “almost make you cry,” Riggs said. “I know it’s all about the Lord, but that’s hard to explain to a three-year-old child. They don’t know that the Lord already gave the greatest gift.”
To contribute to Appalachian Relief Fund, make checks to "First Sevierville UMC." Write "Appalachian Relief/ Scott Co." or "Appalachian Relief/ Sevierville" on memo line. Mail to: First UMC, 214 Cedar Street, Sevierville, TN 37862.
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.