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"And the children will lead them"

"And the children will lead them"

Joshua Atchley of First UMC Spring Hill with toys donated for families served by the church's food pantry.

Amid tough economic times, carrying out extravagant generosity may be the most challenging of the five practices of fruitful congregations, which also include radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, and risk-taking mission.

But a Hernando County congregation and the surrounding community recently witnessed first-hand the fruits of such selfless philanthropy, and it all originated from a surprising source – a seven-year-old boy.

“About a month before his birthday, we were driving to school and Joshua just announced that he wanted to do this, and I said OK,” said Tara Atchley, Joshua’s mother and a member of First United Methodist Church of Spring Hill.

On the surface, what Joshua Atchley wanted to do didn’t seem that unusual – he wanted to host a party for his birthday in October. But instead of being the recipient of gifts, Joshua asked that invitees bring a new, unwrapped toy to donate for the children of the 300 families served by Spring Hill UMC’s Food Pantry.

“My room is kind of overflowing with toys already,” said Joshua simply. “So I just thought it was a good idea.”

“We talk all the time about the how it’s our job as Christians to help others,” said Tara. “We sponsor a child in Africa, and we always pray for him, and we spend about 30 minutes a night reading books about conditions in Africa.”

With his mom’s help, Joshua created the party invitations explaining what he was doing and then distributed them to his entire first-grade class at the Christian school he attends.

Few people were surprised by Joshua’s selfless idea, especially since he long ago announced he wants to pursue an evangelical mission when he grows up.

First UMC Spring Hill

“He truly is an extraordinary young man,” said Rev. Mike Oliver, pastor of Spring Hill. “I don’t think he has a selfish bone in his body. He really has a deep faith for someone as young as he is.”

And everyone thought collecting toys for families in need was a wonderful idea, even adults and other children who are not Joshua’s classmates.

“I told Miss Peterson, who works at the Learning Center at school about it, and the next day she brought in a bag that was overflowing with toys for girls,” Joshua recalled.

As word of Joshua’s unique party idea spread, so too did the involvement of others. After “Pastor Mike” heard of Joshua’s generous act, he announced at Sunday’s services that the church would accept donations in the same spirit as Josh, and they, too, would be passed out to the Food Pantry participants.

“Joshua is surrounded by a great group of people with Christian values – from his teachers at school to Miss Pat, the children’s minister, to his church family,” noted his father, Josh.

The party and subsequent donations garnered more than 100 toys, filling several large plastic bins and covering three conference-size tables. And even though the bounty included some hard-to-find Star Wars toys that Joshua really liked, the first-grade philanthropist was able to help the donated toys find new homes among needy families, all with a joyful heart.

“It just worked out that he didn’t have school on the day the toys were to be distributed so he was able to volunteer at the Food Pantry, helping the children pick out toys and suggesting others,” said his mom, Tara.

Nor has Joshua stopped there. While he hasn’t decided how he’ll mark his next birthday, he is already working on ideas to raise money to build schools and help orphans in Africa. 

For his family, church and community, Joshua’s selfless actions have been a real-life, inspirational example of extravagant generosity. Though the church had recently completed a study of the five practices of fruitful congregations, Rev. Oliver and Joshua’s parents believe the timing was just coincidental and that Joshua’s motivations are borne of the Holy Spirit.

Nor is Rev. Oliver surprised that it took a seven-year-old boy to inspire others. “Josh taught us a good lesson, and as Isaiah 11:6 says, ‘And the children will lead them.’ ”