Atwater UMC connects with kids amid pandemic

January 13, 2022
Tami Tagtow and her great niece, Grace, worship together on Christmas Day 2021. Grace has participated in Zoom Sunday School from South Dakota.

By: Christa Meland

Tami Tagtow, a retired teacher and fourth-generation member of Atwater UMC, has been leading Sunday School since she was 14. She still remembers her very first day of helping an older member teach children in the congregation—the kids glued boats on paper bags to represent the Bible story of Peter, James, and John out in the sailboat, fishing all night with no success until Jesus told them to cast their nets on the other side.  
The city of Atwater, located 13 miles east of Willmar, has a population of 1,100, and the church averages just 18 people in worship; but in late 2019, eight kids were participating in weekly Sunday School led by Tagtow. A few months later, COVID-19 came to Minnesota and left Tagtow wondering how to connect with them amid the statewide shutdown, which prompted most churches—including Atwater—to move to online worship.
Within a few weeks, she was mailing packets to 20 kids connected to the church. Each packet contained a Bible story, an activity, and some other item Tagtow thought the kids would enjoy—like stickers or a bookmark.
“The whole intent was to be able to get into those homes some kind of Jesus story,” Tagtow said. “God is coming into your home every week.”

Grace and her mom participate in Atwater UMC's Zoom Sunday School all the way from South Dakota.
Meanwhile, to keep members of Atwater connected to each other, Rev. Amy VanValkenburg had begun an informal Zoom coffee hour at 3 p.m. every Sunday. During one such virtual gathering, a parent talked about how much her kids loved the packets Tagtow was sending, and a couple of parents held up the packets for all to see. Right then and there, those gathered over their computers took turns reading that week’s Bible story in the packet, reader’s theater-style. Everyone had fun, and it prompted another idea: “We should do Zoom Sunday School!” VanValkenburg suggested.  

In summer 2020, Tagtow began leading Zoom Sunday School. She still mailed packets each week, but the Zoom call enabled the kids to read the Bible story and complete the craft together after a short prayer. The gatherings were somewhat child-led, too. For example, the young participants decided they wanted to do show-and-tell at the beginning of each call, so that became part of the weekly routine.
The Zoom calls not only enabled Atwater’s kids to stay connected to God, the church, and each other but also allowed youngsters from other geographic areas to join in. Tagtow’s great niece (whose mother grew up in the church) participated from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the children of two single moms VanValkenburg knew in St. Paul began receiving packets and joining in the Zoom calls as well.
Rev. Amy VanValkenburg's son Sawyer enjoyed participating in Zoom Sunday School.

Atwater has been back to in-person worship for some time, but Tagtow continues to offer a hybrid option for Sunday School. Some kids come in-person, and others join via Zoom. She doesn’t see that changing anytime soon, particularly now that kids from outside of the community are involved. Tagtow was particularly thrilled when a girl in the church brought three unchurched friends to Sunday School one week last summer.
“Our territory has gotten really big because of the pandemic,” Tagtow enthusiastically reported. “I want these kids to know Jesus…Knowing Jesus is the best thing in all the world.”
Reaching new people is important to Tagtow. She’d love to see her church’s pews completely full. But for now, she’ll continue to plant seeds for all of the kids who cross her path.
“When they come into a crisis, will they pick up a Bible? When they get married, will they pick up a Bible?” Tagtow wonders. She hopes so.

“It’s in God’s hands,” she said. “You can just see the Holy Spirit and God working through us.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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