Bill Hart — the assistant pastor at Emmanuel Free Methodist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, and an insurance agency owner — was invited in February 2008 to preach at Harper Chapel on the 363-acre campus of Glenwood Inc., which provides behavioral health care and educational services for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and severe emotional disturbances.
During Hart’s first visit to Harper Chapel, he shared a traditional message with Glenwood residents that he did not believe went well. At the end of the service, he asked, “Who do you have coming next week?”
“We don’t have a pastor,” replied Christy Castleberry, Glenwood’s vice president of administration and quality assurance. “Sometimes we have youth groups come in and do skits, or a band will come through and do music.”
Hart responded, “Well, if you don’t mind, I’d like to come back next week.
Castleberry didn’t mind, and Hart came back the following Sunday. The week after, he came again. Since 2008, Hart and his wife, Tracey, have returned week after week for him to preach at Harper Chapel.
“As far as I know, I’m on a Sunday-to-Sunday basis, since I haven’t been asked to leave,” Hart said with a laugh.
The congregation meets every Sunday at 2:30 p.m. The service begins with prayer and then singing, followed by a 30- to 45-minute sermon and then more singing and prayer. Sticking to a routine is important at Harper Chapel. One member of the congregation stands up and stops the service if anything differs from the normal schedule.
Over the years, Hart has found ways to keep things interesting. He has dressed up like the Easter Bunny or as every Bible character possible, and Harper Chapel has brought in ballerinas and dance groups. At Christmas, the chapel focuses on the nativity.
Sunday attendance typically ranges from 30 to 40 people. However, the number fluctuates from as low as seven to as high as 100 attendees. It all depends on the Sunday. If a Glenwood staff member brings a house of residents (usually seven or eight people), and one begins to act up, they may all act up. Children usually have a harder time staying focused, and, therefore, do not attend Harper Chapel as often unless there are special events. Those in attendance more often are adults between the ages of 20 to 60, and they are not bothered when another Glenwood resident might be having a hard day.
“Once, I preached for 30 minutes while someone was yelling,” Hart said. “Everybody ignored it … because they are used to it.”
Hart graduated from Southeastern Bible College and immediately began holding youth revivals with a band called Soul Cry. He never saw himself as a traditional pastor because, he said, “I’m a bit quirky, a little different.”
In his initial days of ministry, Hart imagined he was going to see masses converted for Christ, and even Billy Graham might talk about Hart in his interviews.
“There’s a road that everybody takes — the road less taken — and then there’s my road,” Hart said.
Hart realized that God has a tendency of shifting plans and changing dreams, and He often leads us into areas of life we do not expect. Hart said he now cannot imagine doing anything else but ministering to the residents of Glenwood who “understand God. They understand being saved. [They] are so treasured by their families.”
Hart is humbled by how Glenwood residents “are so open, so trusting, so loving.” The residents ask Hart about his daughter, son or wife if one of them is absent on a Sunday. The residents have become part of Hart’s family.
“We dearly love Pastor Billy,” Castleberry said, “[Hart] has never been called Billy [elsewhere], but the folks down there call him Pastor Billy, and he goes along with it.”
In the past, Hart has experienced churches where politics and organizational structure have gotten in the way. Harper Chapel members don’t have to worry about disagreements and arguments emerging from board or budget meetings. The residents of Glenwood come to the chapel for one reason: worship.
“All we do is worship,” Hart said. “We have no budget. We have no income.”
The donations of others ensure the congregation’s needs are met so that congregation members can focus exclusively on worship. Hart added, “God has spoiled me. He’s spoiled me.”
Christiana Long earned a bachelor’s degree in English writing from Spring Arbor University and a master’s degree in organizational communication from Ball State University. She hopes to change the world one story at a time.