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Trailer park congregation grew from volunteers’ outreach to kids

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Although she’s considered a faithful missionary by fellow Bluegrass Baptist Church members, Tonya Elsten never leaves Hendersonville, Tenn.
Instead, she gathers up her Sunday school lesson plan, a couple packets of Kool-Aid and a box of cookies and heads west on Hendersonville’s Gallatin Road. A few turns later, Elsten, who is occasionally joined by her husband, Tommy, enters Hendersonville Mobile Village on Old Shackle Island Road, pulls up to lot 32 and enters the 16-by 60-foot mobile home affectionately known as the Church Trailer.
What has now become the Bluegrass Baptist Mission at the trailer court began four summers ago like many backyard Bible studies Elsten’s church conducts each July in an attempt to reach out to the community and spread the message of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Elsten, who lived nearby at the time, was one of the initial organizers of the outreach at Hendersonville Mobile Village. She and a few other volunteers conducted Bible studies and activities for children in an adjacent field. The mission boasted the largest attendance of any of the other backyard Bible studies in the area, she said. Thirty-two children attended, but after a month of getting to know the children, Elsten and others didn’t want to stop teaching them.
“I said, once you meet these kids and get them going, you shouldn’t just desert them,” Elsten said.
A local funeral home donated a tent under which services were held for the children until the weather turned cold. Church vans then started transporting the youngsters across town to Bluegrass Baptist Church on Indian Lake Road.
In 1996, someone donated a mobile home to the church, and both the city of Hendersonville and Hendersonville Mobile Village gave permission for Bluegrass to place a mobile church in the trailer park.
On a slight variation of the “If you build it, they will come ” theory, they stripped the trailer, rebuilt it, decorated it with curtains sewn by a Sunday school class and set it in the middle of a trailer park. And, Bibles in tow, they did come. Only this time, the children brought their parents.
“What we decided was we’d take the church to them,” said Bluegrass pastor Leonard Markham. “We wouldn’t wait for them to come to us on Sunday.”
In 1997, a newer and larger trailer was purchased by Bluegrass Baptist. That was also about the time that the mission church acquired a new, interim pastor. Two years later, he still graces the makeshift pulpit.
When Wayne Markham’s son asked him to shepherd a church in the middle of a trailer park, he readily complied, but admits he didn’t expect to still be there.
“When [my wife and I] started coming here, it was primarily as a favor to our son,” said the elder Markham, admitting he and his wife now have grown quite attached to their congregation.
“Now I do it because I thoroughly enjoy it and enjoy the people,” he said.
It is this attachment, as well as Markham’s commitment to his faith, that inspires him and his wife of 57 years, Margaret, to journey from Crossville, Tenn., to Hendersonville each Saturday. The two spend the night and visit with their son and daughter-in-law before heading to the Church Trailer on Sunday. They then return to Crossville later in the day.
“We’ve enjoyed every bit of it,” said the 77-year-old retired minister of his tenure at a church that ministers to an average of 30 followers at the adult church service and nearly 70 overall during the Sunday school hour.
One member who anxiously awaits Markham’s message is Lala Sisco, a former Catholic who travels two short blocks to the church with her granddaughter. “The people are giving the Word here. They care and they encourage you,” she said.
Before Markham’s message each Sunday, a large part of the service is dedicated to prayer requests. Newly ordained deacon and mobile village resident Marty Privette leads this part of the service. Standing in front of an erasable board, he asks if anyone would like to add someone to the list.
Someone mentions a neighbor with financial problems. Someone else names a church member who faces surgery this week. An 11-year-old asks members to pray for her recently deceased dog. The dog’s name is added, someone later explained, because its important to the church that children know they can ask God anything.
Privette also noted although many members of the 88-unit trailer park may not be necessarily interested in attending the church, its presence is felt in this community of mobile home owners. (Renters are not permitted.)
“I think it gives them some satisfaction to know someone is thinking about or praying for them,” said Privette who, with his acoustic guitar, also leads the group in song.
“It’s sincere worship here,” added the song and prayer leader who, until “God parked this trailer in my back yard,” attended another local Baptist congregation on Sunday mornings.
Privette noted the church has provided an invaluable service to the trailer park community. Besides providing spiritual support, the group has provided financial aid such as paying car payments and electric bills for those in need.
There is no doubt in Privette’s mind the church is growing. It’s a tight squeeze on those Sundays when most of the members are in attendance. The idea of purchasing another trailer and lot next to the existing one has even been discussed.
But while the church is growing, Markham stressed that the goal is not for the church to “grow just to be larger, but to grow to the extent of where we minister to all of the families in the trailer court.”
Paul Stouffer, minister of missions at Bluegrass, noted the Church Trailer especially appeals to those who may otherwise not attend church. The difference between this church and others, he added, is the proximity to peoples’ homes as well as the feeling of many that they are hearing a message prepared especially for them.
“We take them as they come,” said Stouffer. “In the beginning a lady came in her bare feet. We’re just happy that she was there.”
Stouffer also mentioned that, of all the backyard Bible studies the church has conducted over the past five years, this is the only one to spawn its own congregation.
However, the mission is not totally its own entity, as many members of Bluegrass Baptist still volunteer to teach Sunday school classes and lead many activities for children on week nights.
For now, Elsten, who teaches the first- through fifth-grade Sunday school class, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I never thought of myself as being a missionary,” she said. “It just seems so natural to share Jesus with others.”

Lee is a staff writer for The Hendersonville Star News. Used with permission.

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  • Tena Jamison Lee