For Tony Swillum, it was not a matter of being called into the ministry so much as it was to help hurting people.
Today, he does both at a pace that would make people’s heads swim.
Swillum is senior pastor at Freedom Christian Center, which draws about 400 worshippers each Sunday and is located on Missouri Highway 39, halfway between Mount Vernon and Aurora. He is also the founder and director of Freedom Dream Center, a ministry that offers a one year live-in substance abuse program and residential facility for those struggling with life-controlling issues.
Though the Dream Center appears to be a rehabilitation facility, Swillum makes it clear it is a school of ministry.
In fact, he said the majority of the 40 men and 15 women presently enrolled in the program are studying for the ministry.
“Even though we work with drug addicts, alcoholics, people getting out of jail and the homeless, this program is geared toward people going into the ministry,” he said. “We teach things like divine healing, the word of God and anger management, and the reason we are so successful is because we teach that, if you take care of God’s business, God will take care of yours. It is all about getting their minds off of their problems and helping others with theirs. Our big focus is teaching them how to minister to others.”
Swillum married his high school sweetheart, Christi, after graduating from Miller High School, before going into full-time ministry. From there, he started his own church, the Mount Vernon-based Freedom Christian Center, in 2000.
Needing more room not only for his church but also for the Dream Center, Swillum relocated FCC two years later, where he had to transform an abandoned building into a church auditorium.
“The whole purpose in starting our church was just to help hurting and messed-up people,” said Swillum.
After moving into the new church, Swillum turned his sights toward building dormitories for residents of the Dream Center. Today, there are two dorms that house 20 men each on the site and another dorm with 15 women in nearby Aurora.
Elaine Lawson, a volunteer who has been a member of the church since it began, played a big role in providing a place for some of the women until the dorms could be built.
“We used the upstairs in our house in Aurora for those needing a place to stay,” she said.
Lawson also welcomed some women into her home after they had graduated from the Dream Center program and were transitioning back to their regular lives.
The cost to go through the 52-week course, which includes room and board, is $300 a month.
Swillum owns two businesses, T&T Butcher Shop and Midway Service Center, and provides various construction and lawn care jobs, where residents can work off their fee and learn a trade.
“Most men who have been under an addiction have never worked a regular job,” said Swillum. “The job situation is not about going to work and making money but about teaching them faithfulness, how to work hard and be a good employee. This also gives them something to put on their resumes.”
A typical week day for a resident is to get up at 6:30 a.m., eat breakfast at 7, go to chapel with Swillum at 7:30, attend morning classes before before heading out to their afternoon jobs.
Residents are also required to attend worship services at 10 a.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday, along with prayer meetings.
The eight employees working with the residents are all graduates of the Dream Center.
Swillum said he receives up to eight calls a day from people hoping to enroll in the program.
Next door to the church and dormitories sits the Freedom Rodeo Arena, which Swillum built to minister to cowboys.
“A lot of people who go to our church got saved out there,” he said.
As if FCC doesn’t have enough on its plate, church officials plan to open another ministry in May to boys and girls who have reached 18 years old, are out of foster care and find they have nowhere to go.
In connection with that, FCC has purchased a 5,000-square-foot house that will accommodate up to 20 residents.
Want to Help?
Freedom Christian Center and Dream Center, 17044 Highway 39, Aurora, Mo. 65605; P.O. Box 285, Mount Vernon, Mo. 65712. Telephone: 417-678-6909. Email: email@example.com. Website: www.freedomchristianministries.org.