ERWIN — When one tends to think about missionary work, they tend to think about work that is done outside the United States.
Since 1939 — a time when more than one-third of the counties in the country had no resident priest — Glenmary Home Missioners has focused its missionary work solely in the states, establishing a number of Catholic communities in areas where they did not exist.
The Rev. Tom Charters grew up in Dayton, Ohio, a city that had a number of Catholic churches within walking distance of one another, and he was always fascinated with missionary work. When he began to think more seriously about entering the priesthood, he heard about Glenmary and the work the organization did in the U.S.
That idea of being a missionary in his own country really spoke to Charters, who has been working with Glenmary for nearly 40 years.
“Our life as missionaries is to be with people and to be present to them, and we’re not out there to preach people into a church, but to invite if they wish and to be of service to the needs of the people,” he said.
At the beginning of September, Charters moved to Erwin in order to begin laying the groundwork for the Catholic Community of Unicoi County, one of the latest Glenmary missions.
Since moving to the area, Charters has experienced a welcoming from many people in Unicoi County. While the community is still very much in its infancy, Charters said there are a number of Catholics who live in the county, and many have expressed their delight at finding out there is now a Catholic community in the area.
“Now what’s happening, I’ll go out into the community with my collar on and people will stop me and say, ‘Father, where’s the church?’ ”
Charters has been holding Mass in the home of a Unicoi couple who are members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Johnson City. The next step, according to Charters, is creating and nurturing the community and growing it together.
“It’s coming together on a regular basis around the Eucharist on Sundays and developing some religious education and understanding what it is to be a mission parish,” he said.
But the work of Glenmary isn’t just limited to creating Catholic communities. The organization also does a lot of ecumenical work in which they work with other denominations in breaking down barriers that often separate churches.
“Many of the counties that we serve are highly unchurched. There may be a lot of churches in the counties, but a lot of people don’t go to church,” he said.
Although they aren’t planting seeds abroad, Charters said it’s important to do missionary work at home as a way of “offering the fullness of Christianity.”
“The church is offering its history and tradition all the way back to the time of the apostles,” he said. “It’s offering the Catholics that opportunity to live their life as Catholics, and it’s also offering to those who are not Christian the opportunity to see Christianity through the eyes of Catholic church,” he said.
Charters is holding a meeting at the Clinchfield Senior Center, 220 Union St., on Wednesday at 7 p.m. for anyone who wishes to learn more about starting a Catholic community in Unicoi County.
For more on the Unicoi mission, call Charters at 735-0484 or visit www.glenmary.org.