By Jenny Pope
Photography by Eric Guel and Lauren Hollon Sturdy
HOUSTON – Most churches greet the rush of the back-to-school season with special worship services and promotion Sundays, but one Houston church stays grounded with an annual project that has now helped protect the feet of more than 100,000 children worldwide.
South Main Baptist Church, based in downtown Houston, completed its 13th annual shoe drive on Sept. 1 in support of Shoes for Orphan Souls®, the largest humanitarian aid project of Buckner International. A total of 10,012 pairs of shoes were collected through the drive and will soon be on the feet of children in the Dominican Republic, Peru and even in the United States.
This year’s collection pushed the total given through South Main to 100,310 pairs of shoes collected since 2001, making it the largest cumulative collection of shoes by any church in the history of the Shoes for Orphan Souls project.
Albert Reyes, president and CEO of Buckner International, said South Main leads the way in practicing pure religion.
“These shoes will find their way to vulnerable children and families and serve as a tangible expression of God’s love, shining hope into their lives. South Main has really taken the ball and scored a touchdown for Shoes for Orphan Souls,” he said.
On Sept. 1, more than 200 volunteers of all ages joined together in the South Main lobby to prepare the shoes for shipping. Children as young as 4 and 5 years old tossed shoes from the top of the “shoe mountain” as adults sorted and packed them up for shipment to the Buckner Center for Humanitarian Aid in Dallas.
“It’s controlled chaos,” said Henry Hill, church member and long-time shoe drive coordinator. “But I always say, there’s a job for everyone.”
Hill has coordinated the church’s shoe drive since it began in 2001 and has traveled on 15 mission trips with Buckner to serve vulnerable children and deliver shoes. He serves as trustee emeritus on the Buckner Board of Trustees and has a unique perspective on the needs of children he has seen through his travels around the world.
“I catch myself looking at what kids have on their feet and most of the places we go, the kids don’t have shoes like they should,” he said. “So I am continuously reminded that there is a purpose to what we’re doing. So if the church wants to keep supporting it, I want to keep doing it.”
Every year in August, the church begins collecting shoes and money. Instead of greeting signs and volunteers, South Main welcomes visitors and members with mountains of shoes piled over six feet high in the lobby, held in place by over 50 feet of caged fences wrapped in white Shoes for Orphan Souls banners.
Volunteers arrive each Wednesday morning during the drive to remove shoes from boxes, cut off tags and tie the laces together. Then on the last Sunday of the shoe drive, everyone comes together for a packing party after church to help process and pack the shoes for shipment.
Pastor Steve Wells said the mountains serve as both a practical storage space and visual reminder about the children whose lives they are changing through their gifts.
“There is so much energy that comes from seeing this big display continue to grow week after week,” Wells said. “We are constantly reminding everyone that each pair of shoes is going to be delivered to a child with grace and love; and that this is not a one and done project. Buckner is in it for the long haul. The shoes are a front door, not a back door. Buckner maximizes the impact of the shoes for deeper ministry everywhere they go.”
In addition to the shoe drive, South Main collaborates with Buckner to support a community project in Peru and to build churches and homes for vulnerable families in the poorest counties of the Rio Grande Valley.
Molly Cash, Shoes for Orphan Souls coordinator, said South Main’s dedication is “unheard of” and the church has collected more shoes than any other church in the United States.
“They have such a fiery passion to help kids,” she said. “To see it continue to thrive and flourish year after year is so inspiring. Without South Main, a lot of kids wouldn’t have the joy of receiving a new pair of shoes, or the prayers and love that come with them.”
Cash, who grew up attending the church and first learned about Buckner and Shoes for Orphan Souls through Hill, credits the church’s leadership and coordinator Henry Hill with helping the project continue to be so successful.
“Henry is a sweet man with the biggest heart,” she said. “He loves Buckner and the kids we serve. His attention to detail and to making sure each child receives the very best is what makes him so wonderful to work with. And I think the church seeing his enthusiasm is huge.”
Hill points back to the church as the true sustaining force behind the effort.
“I feel very proud and very appreciative of what the members of South Main have contributed over such a long period of time,” he said. “To sustain it for that long is really something. South Main truly has a heart for ministry.”
Hill will travel to Peru with Buckner for the ninth time this December to deliver Christmas gifts and shoes to children.
“Buckner always says the shoes help the kids know they are not forgotten, and that is really the truth. You see the kids smile and jump, dancing around in their shoes. It’s pretty special. Especially when you know they don’t ever get anything new. I feel very, very blessed.”
To learn more about Buckner International’s Shoes for Orphan Souls® project or ways to get involved, please visit buckner.org/shoes.
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