One house at a time

West Greenville couple dedicates life to improving a neighborhood

Madison Dillard waits for the signal to ring her bell in music class at Bethel Christian Academy. (Michelle Mogavero/Staff)

Standing in front of a picture window on the second floor of Bethel Bible Missionary Church, Vardrey Fleming can look out across Endel Street and see many of the fruits of what has become his life’s labor.

No longer do drug pushers and prostitutes peddle poisons on nearly every corner. Dilapidated and abandoned houses have been razed or refurbished, and affordable homes built in their place. Overgrown lots are cleared, hinting at the promise of development.

“I often wondered why the Lord carried me in the different directions that he carried me,” said Fleming, the 61-year-old founder and pastor of Bethel Bible Missionary Church, where he has served since its beginning in 1970. “God gets the credit for bringing the right people into my life.”

Today, Fleming and his wife, Lynn, have gone from being seen as outsiders to part of the fabric that holds West Greenville together. Their vision of enriching lives through Christ and commitment has led to dozens of community development projects, an outreach ministry for past or present substance abusers, a Friday night gathering for children, an after-school program, a summer enrichment camp and most recently a Christian school serving 34 children in K-3 through fifth grade.

“Within the next five years, I believe this neighborhood won’t be recognizable by those who once knew it,” Fleming said.

He is convinced the pathway traveled to the transformation is a model worth sharing.

And out of that certainty grew Neighborhood Focus, a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization that operates as a ministry of Bethel Bible Missionary Church. The idea is to use West Greenville as a live model of a self-reliant community that can be replicated again and again nationwide.

Leaders of Neighborhood Focus are committed to working with organizations such as Greenville Connect, Homes of Hope and Habitat for Humanity to promote the model on a national level, Fleming said.

For Fleming, an ordained Baptist pastor and licensed Methodist minister, it all goes back to Christ’s challenge to his disciples in Acts 1:8: “Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth.”

“Our Jerusalem is our neighborhood, our Judaea is greater Greenville…” Fleming said. “But unfortunately, what many of today’s churches have done is jump over Jerusalem, Judaea and Samaria and gone straight to the uttermost parts.”

Fleming isn’t opposed to local churches doing mission work in other countries. But it is disheartening for him to see needs ignored. Fleming has felt a calling to serve those unmet needs since he was a young man facing one of the biggest decisions of his life.

After graduating from Washington High in Greenville County, Fleming was offered a full scholarship to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.It was a time when racial tensions were running high in the Deep South, and Fleming said he still had much to learn. He remembers trying to hail a cab at the bus station when he arrived in Tuscaloosa, only to be told that blacks didn’t ride in white cabs.

But once on campus, things changed.

“I was supposed to live with the dean in a house a block long,” Fleming said. “It had an indoor swimming pool. I’d never been anywhere like that before, and I’ve never been anywhere like that since. I got the first-class treatment, and everything was ready to go.”

Except by that time, he’d starting thinking about enrolling in a Bible college instead of a liberal arts school.

“I’d always felt that the people of the black community needed a solid foundation spiritually, in some ways more so than others,” he said.

He applied to 13 Bible colleges and was met with rejection after rejection. Finally, he was accepted to Carver Bible College in Atlanta,where in 1968 he earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical education and became the first of 10 children in his family to graduate from college.

Through the years, he continued his education at Columbia Bible College, Dallas Theological Seminary, Clemson University and Greenville Technical College before receiving his Doctor of Divinity from the International Bible Institute and Seminary of Orlando in 1985.

During that time, Fleming served 33 years as director of the Bethel Bible Camp & Institute in Columbia, and taught at Tri-County Technical College before returning to Carver Bible College in 1992 to become the institution’s first black president.

After retiring from Carver, Fleming said he envisioned life taking on a slower pace.

“I thought I’d take something of a sabbatical, and maybe do a little teaching and a little counseling,” he said.

Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and built a new gymnasium for the church’s school.

Today, along with his involvement with various boards and commissions, as well as serving as a chaplain for the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, Fleming is also president of the West Greenville Neighborhood Association.

Children who once participated in Bethel Bible Missionary Church’s Friday evening outreach ministry and after-school programs are sending their children to Bethel Christian Academy. The school accepts no government funding. And while tuition is less than most private schools – $1,800 annually for church members and $2,700 for non-members – most students, if not all of them, receive some financial assistance.

“It requires a lot of prayers,” Fleming says. “And I don’t mean that facetiously.”

Contributions have come from throughout Greenville.

“We try to meet these children where they are, then pull them up,” said Mrs. Fleming, the school’s principal and director of education.”Ours is a Christian foundation, and we build upon that with academics. People have seen results, and they’ve come to us asking how they can help.”

Years after an elderly gentleman first escorted Fleming to West Greenville to show him the property where his church now sits, some members of his congregation confided they didn’t always see what he saw. But Fleming said he never lost hope.

“The Lord laid on my heart that we needed to serve here, and we came,” he said. “What we’ve witnessed since then has been a metamorphosis.”



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