CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Children sing with enthusiasm and hand motions as Elbie Thurman plays tunes on his guitar.
Among favorites are "We Are One in The Spirit," "Little by Little," "Jesus Loves Me," and "Lord We Lift Your Name on High."
Kids gather every Thursday evening at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church for music, games, Bible lessons, stories and a complete meal prepared by Thurman. He even provides transportation for those who need a way to get to the youth group meetings.
"This is my passion," Thurman said. "God is moving here. You can see it."
The youth group he started less than two years ago with a couple of children has grown to more than 50 on some nights.
Those who attended on a recent Thursday gave the gatherings rave reviews.
"Elbie has been teaching me to play the guitar," said Morgan Conrad, 10. "We sing and we play musical chairs with the little kids. It's fun. My favorite part is playing the guitar and singing about Jesus."
Thurman, 66, was living in Sarasota, Fla., until he returned home to Cedar Grove for a visit several years ago and met his future wife. He was a widower and she was divorced.
Elbie and Patty Thurman were married Sept. 10, 2002. She is a registered nurse and he is a substitute teacher in Fayette County. Together they run a personal care home in Cedar Grove called The Haven.
The couple became concerned when a dwindling congregation led to talk of Cedar Grove United Methodist being closed and the building sold. They were also concerned about children in the area who lacked activities. Some came from troubled backgrounds.
Armed with a guitar, cooking skills, and enthusiasm, Elbie began reaching out to the kids by inviting them to church on Thursday nights for physical and spiritual feeding.
They loved it.
As word spread, the group continued to grow, with Elbie sometimes making several trips to provide transportation for all of the children. A 16-passenger van was recently donated by East Bank United Methodist.
"Elbie buys all the food and prepares it," Patty said. Sometimes people donate pizzas or prepare side dishes.
Elbie prepares everything from hot dogs to homemade banana bread and makes sure the kids have plenty of fruit.
At first, he handled the youth group alone, but volunteers have recently climbed aboard, including Jean Lamb and sisters Linda Spaulding and Joyce Johnson. Patty also assists. Before Easter Sunday, she collected more than 20 new or gently used dresses and ironed them for the girls who wanted to attend church.
Patty said 26 children have made decisions to become Christians. While sprinkling or pouring is the method generally used in the United Methodist Church for baptism, many of these kids wanted to be submerged.
At the assisted living facility, she has an inflatable tub to help residents who have difficulty getting into a regular bathtub.
"I found the inflatable tub online and never dreamed it would be used for a baptistery," she said.
Those who attend the 6 p.m. Thursday youth group meetings range in age from 4 to 13.