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Churches engage in creative approaches to ministry amid health crisis


March 19, 2020
Rachel and Jeff Devereaux deliver 50 "breakfast boxes" to families struggling amid the COVID-19 health crisis.

By: Christa Meland

When Minnesota United Methodist congregations gathered for worship earlier this month, no one knew it would be their last in-person large gathering for weeks. But as health agency recommendations have become more stringent amid the spread of COVID-19 and Bishop Bruce R. Ough asked for a suspension of all in-person worship services, churches quickly scrambled to adapt to a new way of doing and being church. For some, that has meant live streaming worship for the very first time. Others have set up virtual small groups, Confirmation classes, youth groups, and congregational check-ins. Many are providing at-home resources for worship and faith-building. Some are working with emergency shelters and food pantries to meet vital needs. Here are some particularly unique ways in which churches and individuals have risen to the occasion and tried new methods of caring for others and staying connected (share what you are doing by emailing communications@minnesotaumc.org).
 
Feeding the homeless: New City Church, a new church start in Minneapolis that’s focused on environmental justice, just announced that it is raising and donating $10,000 to Simpson Housing Services in Minneapolis. Simpson operates an emergency shelter and, because of the health crisis, has seen a drastic reduction of volunteers able to supply and serve meals to guests. New City’s donation will provide one month of healthy dinners for Simpson’s 100 guests. While meeting a vital need, this donation will also serve as an investment in a female entrepreneur of color—Ebony Turner, whose catering business, E.T. Delectables, will prepare the meals. “Fear protects us, but generosity shows us who we are,” said Rev. Tyler Sit. “New City Church practices generosity because it’s who the church is and who Jesus is, and we need to remind the world (and ourselves) that in this time of large change and big fear. Furthermore, Matthew 25 (“I was naked and you clothed me…”) demonstrates that God shows up in the lives of marginalized people in ways that the rest of society needs to pay attention to. New City refuses to operate in a toxic charity mindset of ‘we are benevolently giving to those lowly people over there.’ Rather, we see that the liberation of people living in homelessness is inextricably bound up in ours. Coronavirus demonstrates that spiritual truth in a microbiological way: if anyone is sick, we are all in danger. That’s true for poverty and all forms of oppression too (if anyone is oppressed, none of us are truly free).”
 
Breakfast boxes: Rev. Rachel Devereaux, associate pastor at Cross Winds UMC in Maple Grove, was hungry often as a child; her family simply didn’t have the resources needed to support four children. As an adult, addressing food insecurity is especially close to her heart. That’s why, when all Minnesota schools were ordered to close, she knew she had to do something to help students who relied on schools for meals. This week, she and her husband Jeff started providing “breakfast boxes” to families in need. Each box contains a box of cereal, a gallon of milk, a jar of peanut butter, two loaves of bread, 18 eggs, a pound of bacon, and a bunch of bananas. They have delivered 50 boxes so far, and not just to families; boxes have gone to college students having a hard time now that dorms have closed and a variety of others struggling to make ends meet. “In the Bible, you see Jesus eat with people of all different backgrounds and walks of life, and through those meals, the community of Christ was born,” said Devereaux. “Jesus took a plain loaf of bread and a meager cup of wine and turned them into the body and blood of Christ so that every time we took part in eating, we would remember the love that he has for us. It’s my hope that providing food to people helps them know that they are loved—more than they will ever know—and that my community is made that much richer by knowing them and sharing in the meal together.”
 

Rev. Bethany Nelson has been live streaming a virtual story time for the children at Park UMC in Brainerd.
Virtual story time: Each day, Revs. Bethany and Luke Nelson—who serve Park UMC in Brainerd and Emily UMC—have used Facebook Live to read stories to the kids at Park UMC; the segments also include a brief prayer and sometimes a song. These are short, unscripted broadcasts intended to keep kids connected with their church family while they are apart. The Nelsons are also using Zoom (a video conferencing platform) to hold virtual office hours, do pastoral care visits, and host small groups. “The way that we do church has dramatically changed over the last few days, and our goal at Park is not just to reproduce what we've done in person to an online format, but to consider the current needs of our congregation and figure out how we might address them,” said Bethany Nelson. “We can’t avoid what’s going on, but can control our reaction and try to do so with intention and love.” (Note: Because most books are copyrighted, before reading one virtually, look up the publisher to see if it has requirements or restrictions in place; publishers that have lifted all restrictions, and allow books to be read virtually during the health crisis, include Kane Miller and Beaming Books—and author Matthew Paul Turner has done the same for his works.)
 
Meeting needs and checking in: Minnehaha UMC in Minneapolis has recently been intentional about using its programming and ministries to forge connections and build relationships, but those efforts have changed and ramped up significantly in light of the COVID-19 crisis that’s put members at a physical distance from one another. This week, the church created an online system for connecting people who need assistance with people who can provide assistance. If members themselves or others they know need a phone call, grocery shopping or delivery, rides to the doctor, or any other essential services, they can request help. And if members are willing to provide those services, they can let church leaders know and be connected with those who need it. The church is also assigning a “buddy” to regularly call and check in on all older members and starting a pen pal program to give members of all generations a way to keep in touch and support each other.

 
Rev. Bill Eaves leads a virtual prayer time each night.
Virtual prayer gathering: Rev. Bill Eaves, who serves White Bear Lake UMC, is leading a brief prayer time each night at 7 p.m. using Facebook Live. Typically, he lights a candle, does a short reading, offers some thoughts about it, and then offers a prayer. During a recent online prayer time, he asked people what they are thankful for in the midst of the health crisis and invited them to reply in the comments. Some participate in the prayer time in real-time, and others watch the video later on. “It’s the vision of our church to provide nourishment for the hungers of life, and this seemed like a good way to stay connected with each other and to be grounded in faith at the end of the day,” said Eaves. “This interruption in our daily lives is a hard thing that we’re all having to do together. We need each other—and we need reassurance of God’s presence—especially since we aren’t together physically.” Christ UMC in Rochester is also live streaming a daily evening prayer service.
 
Drive-up church: Several churches are exploring the idea of offering drive-up options for all of part of a worship service. This coming Sunday, Park Avenue UMC in Minneapolis is inviting people to drive to church, stay in their vehicles, roll down their windows, and listen to or join with carolers (why not carolers at Lent as well as Christmas, the church said in an email to the congregation) in singing familiar hymns. Those present will be invited to give their offerings from a safe distance and raise their hand if they have a prayer request to share. Similarly, Grace UMC in St. Cloud is exploring the idea of having a tailgate Easter service where families drive to church, stay in their vehicles with windows rolled down, listen to worship, and BYOB (bring your own breakfast or brewed coffee). (Note: If you want to do drive-up church and have everyone tune in on the radios in their vehicles, you can buy an FM transmitter, use it to tap into one of the outputs from the church's sound board, and choose an FM frequency not being used by local stations).

Broadcast church: Hope UMC in Blue Earth is broadcasting its weekly worship service on the local AM radio station. Worship is done from the radio station and includes music, prayers, scripture, and teaching. The church has broadcast services for many years at a cost of $35 a week, but Rev. Russ Jacobsen is making some adaptations given the current environment and hopes this will have especially strong reach because of it. “I am emphasizing to the congregations I serve that ‘the church gathered’ is on hiatus, but this is the time to be ‘the church scattered,’ he said. He has encouraged members to be the church for each other and reminded them of the Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.

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


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