Inside the mostly empty two-car garage, a bright yellow Pontiac Sunfire sits with its front wheel well exposed.
A team of auto-minded volunteers from the newly formed ministry Stones Auto Service had been poking around it, trying to determine what it would take to make it run again. The car needed extensive repairs to the frame and axles but was otherwise in pretty good shape.
With a little more work, it could change someone’s life.
“A lot of times, people rely on that car to survive. They need it to work, to get their kids to daycare, for everything,” said Charlie Polcher, who helped found Stones Auto Service. “If you’re already struggling, and your car can barely stay on the road, it’s hard to justify paying $300, $400, $500 at a time.”
Church programs and social service agencies help provide the needy in Johnson County with food, clothing and other basic needs. But Stones Auto Service offers assistance in clearing what can be an extremely expensive barrier out of poverty.
The Center Grove area shop, a ministry of Stones Crossing Church, provides automotive repair and maintenance to people who otherwise couldn’t afford taking their car to the shop.
A broken-down car can be a devastating blow for people struggling just to pay their bills. The all-volunteer effort works with elderly couples, single moms and other local residents in need to help them get back on the road.
“It’s such a blessing to know that someone cares about people who need that service,” said Jennie Miller, who has been helped by the ministry multiple times. “It’s not like I have the money or time to go sit at a repair place for any length of time. They’re going above and beyond to serve.”
Miller was in the middle of a difficult divorce when she first discovered the auto ministry. She was a member of Stones Crossing Church, and friends and fellow church members encouraged her to bring her car in during the church’s free oil change event.
Money was scarce at the time, and Miller took up the service. Since that point, she has developed a rapport with Polcher and others in the ministry.
“They have done oil changes. I needed tires, and Charlie found those for me and made sure they were put on correctly. I needed a new battery, so they did that,” she said. “They have made themselves available whenever I need help.”
Stones Auto Shop tries to keep costs as reasonable as possible. Repairs and tune-ups, such as an oil change, can be done for free. For other services, such as replacing brakes, Polcher just asks the owner of the car to pay for the parts; he provides labor for free.
A donation fund was established to help cover costs for those who can’t afford anything, Polcher said. Often times, that creates a pay-it-forward situation.
“If I do it for free, what I recommend is, when you’re doing better and can donate to help us, it can help someone else,” he said.
Polcher and a friend, Laten Smith, had been talking about a ministry focusing on car repair for years. They had met through a young-adult ministry at Stones Crossing Church, and came up with a way to do local missionary work in their community.
Their ideas centered around automobiles. They both had taught themselves to fix and work on cars.
“We were talking about helping people in a way that really wasn’t available. So we thought about something that we were both good at, and could use to reach out for the church,” Smith said.
Smith had become skilled at purchasing cheap, broken-down cars, repairing them and using them himself. Polcher would use YouTube to figure out how to do anything from brake replacement to full-engine rebuilds.
“We couldn’t afford to take our cars to a shop, so if something broke, we’d get online and Google things, and get to work,” Polcher said. “I can look up a very specific thing I need to do on a very specific car, and somebody has done a 20-minute video on it.”
As they learned more about working on their own cars, they also used their skills to help friends and family members with brake replacements or oil changes.
More and more, they spoke about extending that service to the needy. Polcher and Smith started working out of their garages in late 2015. They cleared out some space so they could pull a car in and spend some time repairing it.
“It started by word-of-mouth, just telling people what we were doing it straight out of our garage,” Polcher said.
But their ministry received a tremendous boost when it teamed up with Stones Crossing Church. Both Polcher and Smith are members, and during a church dinner they had a conversation with executive pastor David Whitehead.
Whitehead, and other church leaders, thought the auto shop would be a worthwhile ministry of Stones Crossing, adding to its philosophy of the congregation reaching out to those in need throughout the community.
“We wanted to create additional opportunities to live beyond ourselves,” said Mitch Green, the mission’s pastor at Stones Crossing Church. “We hope that everyone in our church moves to the point where they live beyond themselves, and this ministry is part of that.”
With the church’s support, the ministry had a clear avenue for growth, Polcher said.
“We were very limited working out of our garages. The amount of people we could have help us was extremely limited, just because of space,” he said.
Stones Crossing Church helped host the auto ministry’s first public event, a free oil change and inspection day in September. People in need could bring their cars to the church’s parking lot, where volunteers would check it over and determine if further work was needed.
If the car needed more extensive work, such as alignment or suspension repair, they could schedule a time to do that with Stones Auto Service.
Church members promoted the event, and volunteers with auto repair experience offered their help within the ministry.
The success of the oil change event helped establish the ministry as a unique way of helping local residents in need. But a fortuitous transaction within the church allowed for even greater success.
Stones Crossing Church had been approached with an offer to buy a house adjacent to its campus. The property came with a house, which was to be the home of the church’s free medical clinic.
But it also had a two-car garage that was empty. Green suggested that it would be an ideal home for the auto ministry.
“That was really the game changer for our mission. Space was the biggest limitation, having a place where people could bring their car and formalize the process,” Polcher said. “It’s allowed us to triple the amount of people we can help.”
Polcher devotes two or three days each week, coming by after work to tinker around under the hood for a few hours. He also has a team of about five volunteers who offer their services throughout the week as they can.
He’s in the process of lining up more volunteers to help on a consistent basis, which will increase the number of people they can help. Anyone with an automotive repair background, or knowledge of car mechanics, can volunteer with the ministry.
As the ministry develops, the hope is to establish some regular hours during the week when the shop would be open, and people would know they could always bring their car by to get fixed.
“It’s interesting how quickly you can build a relationship with someone simply by helping them. It may seem like something very simple to you, but it’s a very big deal to them,” Polcher said. “Even after helping them with their car, I still get calls from people who just want to talk, or want to check in. It’s pretty cool.”
Despite being in its infancy, Polcher and Smith have seen the value in the work they do. Not only are they providing a valued service, but they’re connecting with people in a meaningful way.
“The real reward for both of us is to do this with an open heart and represent Christ in the way we do it,” Smith said. “We want to share our mission with them. When we can connect with someone, not on a mechanical level, but on a personal, spiritual and religious level, that’s where the real reward is.”
This article originally appeared on www.dailyjournal.com