Brandon and Melodi Hawley, founders of I Heart Church in Mount Hope, continue their initiative to help areas in southern West Virginia grow through their struggles and bring people to Jesus. They both say it’s been a journey, but after moving from Louisiana to the Mountain State, this will now be the place they call “home.”
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You all are originally from Louisiana. How did you all end up here, in West Virginia?
Brandon: She’s from Louisiana, I’m actually from right here in West Virginia and graduated from Independence High School, so I grew up in churches around here. I had gone to Louisiana for Bible College and met Melodi there, and we were in Bible College for one semester together and got married the day after she graduated college. We just kind of knew after that semester that we were going to get married, and she didn’t even know anything about West Virginia.
When we were in Louisiana, we went to a place called Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge. I saw that church was out in the community — they were serving and they were making this huge impact — reaching people other people weren’t reaching. You actually loved going to the church and being a part of the church and everything, and when I saw that, God just started laying on my heart that we need to bring that to West Virginia one day.
Melodi: The first time he brought me to West Virginia to see family, I was in love. It’s always amazed me how people want to leave West Virginia, because when I came here I wanted to move here. We wanted to start a church here that was in the community, and we moved here seven years ago. We started the church a little less than a year later.
When first planting a church, how did you not get discouraged through the ups and downs? Most people wouldn’t expect pastors to seek out a place such as Beckley to plant a church.
Melodi: I think God frequently uses unlikely places in which to do beautiful things, you know? It’s not like we just went and randomly picked a place off the map; we really love this area. I had a dream once when we had only been married like a year or two, and we were still in Louisiana. I didn’t know a whole lot about West Virginia because I had only been here a few times, but I had a dream, and at this time I didn’t know a place called “Mount Hope” existed, so I was in this car with my sisters and my dad, and we parked and ended up by this big mountain, and my dad and I got out of the car and we climbed this hill and there was a huge valley with a rackety bridge across it, and there was a beautiful mountain across it.
I remember a cloud, rainbow and a white horse. I looked at my dad and told him we had to go over there. We crossed the bridge together and we got to the other side and there was a huge rock with names etched all in it. There was a woman. I asked her, “Where are we?” and she responded, “Well, some like to call it Hope Mountain.” I didn’t know at the time there was a place called Mount Hope, W.Va., until I got a Christmas card from someone in Brandon’s family and the address had Mount Hope in it. Coincidentally, our church is in Mount Hope, so when we began this, I knew good would come. So, I just think about that, about the fact the Father put Mount Hope in my heart when I was just a little girl.
Was it your plan to have grown at such a big rate?
Melodi: This has totally blown our minds. We felt from the beginning with the early days of discouragement that the Lord just wanted us to be faithful with the little, with whatever he gave us to just love people one at a time, to just help them overcome their faith and walk in the word. As we just committed to loving people one at a time, those families’ lives just radically changed, so they invited their friends, and they invited their friends, and so on. It really just exploded.
Brandon: I kind of anticipated that it would grow, and it would get bigger and just kind of spread out to be able to influence more throughout the community and the state, but the way that God has done it has just been incredible. It blows us away. You can think and dream, but when you actually start walking in your dream, that’s a complete different thing. It amazes you.
Each year, I Heart Church is the house for a men’s, women’s, and youth conference. Do you feel this differentiates you all from other churches?
Melodi: There are so many other amazing churches in this area, and we always tell people that come to our church that we aren’t the greatest thing, we’re just the latest thing. We do realize that some other churches may not have the staff or other means of having their own, so our conferences are also not only for the people who go to our church, they’re for anyone. We want people to come together and rally together.
Brandon: We also try to attend one conference a year, not our own, where we just get invested ourselves. It just does so much to not have to be ministering and be able to receive and allow God to work in you. We just wanted to be able to do that for the people in this region.
So, tell me a little bit about this campaign, Safe Haven?
Melodi: There are so many churches, organizations and individuals in the area that are responding to the drug epidemic, and even those who are not are burdened by it and see the need, but when a need is so overwhelming, it’s like where do you even start? So that’s really a lot of what Safe Haven is — a rallying point to connect to because everyone recognizes a need that something needs done. We love on these women who are battling drug addiction, and we have banquets to just talk with them, guide them and educate them.
Brandon: We’ve always had the mentality to use what’s in your hand. We knew we couldn’t tackle the entire drug epidemic, but we thought, “What can we do?” So, we thought we could throw a banquet and bring some of these ladies in, and we could have people teaching them about the effects drug addiction can have on their babies and all of that, but then we can love on them and try to build a relationship with them. That’s just where we are starting. Then, through that, God has made connections through delegates, doctors, law enforcement and drug enforcement that now it’s starting to bring a team together to tackle this epidemic.
I’ve seen another campaign — #NotUs. Is this affiliated with the Safe Haven campaign?
Melodi: Last year, I was just growingly burdened with what I saw with the drug epidemic in the community. Especially the foster families in our church, who have been my heroes, my inspiration and have taken in four or five children and are asking for prayer requests, holding these little babies that are withdrawing from drugs. Just seeing what’s happening in our community and being broken about it and not knowing how to fix it, that sparked this. I remember I was sitting in front of a delegate, and he told me our state was really at a tipping point, that he didn’t know what it was going to look like in 10 or 15 years, when all these grandparents who are raising these children start to pass away, what’s going to happen to our community? So, we thought maybe we weren’t just sent here to plant a church, we were sent here to help save a community, a state.
It started out as just a one-part strategy, but then we realized this was really a three-strategy approach. We launched the first aspect last October, the rehabilitation aspect of the program, that focuses on helping the children. We thought if we want to help the future children of the state, we have to help the moms going through this crisis. So, we did the banquet, and we worked to connect these women to physicians and good prenatal care. We now also have classes every Tuesday. Women can come in to learn about basic self-defense, body care, baby care, all of that. Eventually, what we would like this to turn into is a holistic treatment facility, build a clinic and help get to the root of why they’re battling this addiction.
Under that banner, we are working to respond to the foster and child welfare crisis here. We asked what could the church do to help families foster kids? So we help them meet with agencies, provide foster care support groups and we even have a foster care closet where they can come in and shop any time they need to. Then, just recently at our youth conference, we launched the third strategy to this, which is #NotUs. When I was a kid, smoking was a really common thing among teenagers, but when the anti-smoking campaign came in, they didn’t use middle-aged cops, they used celebrities and young people that were cool and they made smoking no longer cool. They appealed to what other teenagers cared about, which was what others think, and it worked. So, what if we could get ahead of this and eliminate the need for Safe Haven in 15 to 20 years?
We launched #NotUs, which is a social media campaign. We think social media is the answer to this, and we can utilize Generation Z to be the voice against drugs. Our philosophy of this is to use upper Generation Z and Millennials to share testimonial videos, educational videos and just things to raise awareness involving those who are addicted to drugs or have gone through drug addiction on their social media sites and letting them be voice to the people of what kind of things can happen, and to simply post with it #NotUs.
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