Jenn Williams: Faith over politics
Jenn Williams was on track to become a political big wig but she decided to follow a different path.
Williams was an A student with a double major in political science and journalism who spent one summer as an intern on Capital Hill and another as an intern for the political website stateline.org. Those summers gave her a glimpse into both what a Washington insider could accomplish as well as what someone dedicated to scrutinizing Washington politics could achieve.
As graduation neared she decided not to pursue a career involving either.
“I discovered that the church is where I believe the most change can be made in the world,” Williams said. “You can do a lot of things that seem like they are really huge and go a lot of places that seem like that is where life really happens only to discover that real change and real life don’t happen there. Those things happen in our community and in our homes so that is where I want to spend my time.”
She entered the seminary and in 2004 an internship brought her to Summerville. It was there she and her husband, Clark, made their home a year later. Upon graduating from Duke Divinity School in 2006, she accepted a position with Bethany United Methodist Church.
She arrived at a time when the church was experiencing a lot of growth. Officials soon determined the time was right to start a new church to help accommodate that growth and in 2009 Williams was chosen to plant Ashley Ridge Church in the East Edisto community. As the pastor for the new church, she continues her mission to make the world a better place.
“Pastor Williams is changing what worship of Christ looks like and by doing that she is changing this community,” said Keisha Brown, who nominated Williams as a Woman to Watch. “Our family is blessed to know her and it warms my heart to know that the young generation of our church and community have her as their role model.”
Ever since the church opened it has held its Sunday services at Ashley Ridge High School. A school and a church working together in that manner in this day and age is unusual but Williams says the partnership was great right from the start.
“It has been a gift for us to be in the school,” she said. “As a pastor you tell people all the time the church is not the building but rather the group of people who get together to worship and show they care about each other. When you don’t have a building of your own that’s a lot easier for you to say and easier for them to believe. Also, when we set out to plant the church in that community we knew the growth was headed toward where the high school was being built and in fact it was the only infrastructure out there.”
The partnership has been symbiotic; under Williams’ leadership the church has founded programs that have benefitted both students and teachers at the high school. Naturally, a congregation that meets in a school has grown to include several students and teachers but the benefits for those groups haven’t stopped with worship opportunities.
Along with ARHS guidance counselor Marci Newman, Williams established the Fox Food Center that provides meals to students from low-income families. Members of the church provide donations and the Fox Food Center provides ways students can pick up the food inconspicuously. The program has grown over the past few years and now in addition to the food pantry also provides services such as gift cards that ensure students have food during the summer.
The church’s Change for a Dollar program encourages church members to each bring a dollar every Sunday. Those funds are then used for a wide range of projects. The church accepts requests from those in need and picks a different cause to support each week.
Programs Williams helped found are not only helping people in the Summerville community, they are also helping people in other countries.
The church sponsors a school, substance farm that helps feed a community and orphanage that is the home to 12 children in war-torn Rwanda.
“It’s neat we are able to feed kids both right here in our neighborhood and those halfway around the world...it’s fun for us as a church that doesn’t have a building of its own yet, to be able to fund the construction of buildings on the other side of the world that are doing great work,” Williams said. “ Of course, I can’t take credit for any of this. I have an amazing group of people who come up with these amazing ideas the church gets to be a part of.”
The ideas may not have all been hers but Williams did approve them all and plays a major role in implementing them.
As if doing so combined with leading a congregation weren’t enough, Williams is also overseeing the project to construct a permanent home for Ashley Ridge Church; she occasionally runs half marathons; and she is the mother of two.
Fittingly, her church helps her manage all that without being overwhelmed.
“We live in a world that is so fragmented and everyone is running around doing their own stuff and life is so busy we can all end up isolated and frustrated,” she said. “In planning this new church the idea was let’s strip away all the stuff. Let’s be very simple and worship. We want to be a place for people to come to make sense of it all, a place where every week they can take a deep breath and remember who God is, remember who we are and remember we are not alone.”