Mission week brings denominations together to connect with neighbors

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Mission week brings denominations together to connect with neighbors

Aug. 15, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0720}

An e-Review Feature
By Debbie Corbin**

DELAND — Across the western part of Volusia County and parts of the Tampa area, Christians of many denominations came together to celebrate Jesus during the hot days of July 21-28.

Volunteers participating in the Celebrate Jesus mission week July 21-28 set out to visit residents door-to-door in the neighborhood surrounding Trinity United Methodist Church in DeLand. Photo by the Rev. Ivan Corbin. Photo #07-0643.

Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Missionary Baptist, Assembly of God and nondenominational churches joined United Methodist congregations to blanket the city of DeLand, neighboring communities and parts of Tampa with prayer, acts of kindness, servant evangelism and non-confrontational door-to-door outreach.

The churches worked together under the umbrella of a Celebrate Jesus mission, a weeklong event that pairs teams from visiting churches with churches in a specific area to help those home churches reach out to their communities.

Although Celebrate Jesus is nothing new to the Florida Conference, the breadth and ecumenical character of the event made this mission unique.

The Rev. Joe MacLaren, senior pastor at University Carillon United Methodist Church in Oviedo, helped develop Celebrate Jesus in Florida, modeling it after a similar movement in England called Share Jesus. Although Celebrate Jesus’ roots may be in Methodism, MacLaren said it was intentionally designed to be nondenominational.

Since 1998 when Celebrate Jesus was first introduced in the Florida Conference, members of other denominations have participated on a limited basis, but not to the extent that occurred during the July mission, according to Kathy Furlong, executive director of Celebrate Jesus.

“I have never seen anything like the unity of the denominations,” she said. “I am in awe of what God has done and is doing.” 

Apart from working together for poverty issues, MacLaren said he did not know of any other way Christian churches had come together so ecumenically.

The first seeds of this greater ecumenical involvement came largely through the influence of the Rev. Mike Carroll, associate pastor of First Assembly of God of DeLand.

Carroll and members of his church participated in a previous Celebrate Jesus mission in the Florida Conference’s former DeLand District in 2000. Since then, Carroll has been instrumental in encouraging the ecumenical nature of the evangelistic outreach, something he says did not happen overnight. Instead, it has been a slow process of churches and pastors coming together periodically over the years for special events, such as community prayer events.

Carroll said the excitement, energy and experiences shared at the mission’s midweek celebration were a testimony to what overcoming denominational differences and working with each other for a common purpose can do.

“The churches (in the DeLand area) have been able to see what it is like to get out beyond their four walls,” said Carroll, who continues to emphasize the need to work together. “Come together as the body of Christ — even the world will see that (we are the body of Christ).”

Making a difference now

After months of planning, preparation and prayer walking neighborhoods to set the stage for the week, 17 Celebrate Jesus mission teams — composed of 178 people who had either participated in previous Celebrate Jesus missions or felt called to the July mission — took a week off to work with host churches to go door-to-door visiting neighbors, invite people to block parties and pray over prayer requests.

Jacob Hall (left), 11, and best friend, Sean Clayton, both from Orange City United Methodist Church, join fellow team members to celebrate their experiences at the mid-week point of the July 21-28 Celebrate Jesus mission. Photo by the Rev. Ivan Corbin. Photo #07-0644.

Art Bakewell, chaplain at Florida Hospital of DeLand, was integrally involved in the Celebrate Jesus planning and specifically requested a team to serve the hospital’s special needs because, he said, it’s easy for leaders and members to grow complacent and lose significance in the places they serve. Visiting teams bring fresh eyes and new excitement.

“The greatest testimony to the effectiveness of our team is the response of the ER crew when they say, ‘Are you going to be here next week, too? We really need you all the time,’ ” he said.

At the midweek and final gatherings and celebrations, team members shared their encounters with their neighbors and the community at large. Jacob Hall, 11, a first-time participant volunteering in the Orange City area, confidently told the assembled group: “I learned that you don’t always get what you want. You get what you need, and what you need is God.”

Judy Preuschl, a member of First United Methodist Church of Port St. Lucie, served on the team working at the hospital. She shared her experience working with a young man waiting to be released to a hotel room. She said he was feeling little hope or relief from a painful nerve disease called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy that was turning his leg purple. Preusch was able to offer much needed hope when she revealed her own purple leg and talked to him about various medicines and treatments that had helped her. She said they prayed, hugged and cried.

Preusch summed it up as being a “God thing!” “What are the chances of someone with the same disease meeting up with him?” she said.

Covenant Community Church members partnering with DeLeon Springs United Methodist Church hoped their block party would provide a non-threatening venue to connect a young woman living in a nearby apartment complex, whose friend suffers from drug- and alcohol-related problems, with a neighbor in the same apartment building who helps people deal with those problems.

Father Tom Connery of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, DeLand, said the mission was a new experience for Catholics, who are “used to putting out a sign indicating when Mass will be held and people just come.” He said going out into neighborhoods means stepping out of the comfort zone.

At the end of the week, Maeve Jemison, one of Connery’s parishioners, said the week had been “so exciting” and her church’s members had taken the mission seriously — they had “no lackadaisical attitude; they are hardcore!”

One team member said the mission gave people — some of whom live “lives of quiet desperation” — hope that someone does indeed care.

Keeping the momentum going

Members of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Presence and other congregations said they and their congregations received as many blessings as they gave to the community. They also said the mission would not stop at the end of the week.

Maeve Jemison, a member of St. Peter's Catholic Church in DeLand, said people in the community recognized her yellow shirt and told her they had been visited during the July 21-28 Celebrate Jesus mission. Team members wore the shirts while making their rounds in DeLand area neighborhoods. Photo by the Rev. Ivan Corbin. Photo #07-0645.

During the week Church of the Holy Presence adopted one of the local elementary schools and “prayer walked” the halls. They also prayed at every teacher desk and every student seat in preparation for the new school year. They plan to partner with that school throughout the year.

“The greatest mission field is where God has you in the moment,” one member said.

While there were some instances of rejection — doors closed in faces, the police being called to question mission teams, a call to a church to complain about “this garbage” (information about churches and invitations to block parties) left at the door — the accounts of people who had been waiting for a team to come to their door, to receive an invitation to a block party or church, or to have someone pray with them were more numerous.

People recognized the bright yellow shirts team members wore.

“Every time I wear the shirt — to the gas station, the hardware store — people say they have been visited,” Jemison said of wearing her shirt during the mission week. 

Charlie Heim, a visiting team member working with Trinity United Methodist Church in DeLand, said he was even recognized at Wal-Mart when he wasn’t wearing his shirt. The woman, who could not speak to him when he visited her home, talked to him and shared a prayer request.

At the end of the mission week Heim challenged the Christian community to “be prepared.”

“Even when you take your shirts off and put them in the laundry, the Lord will never let you take your shirts off,” he said. 

Carroll agreed and emphasized the importance of follow-up after the mission: “There will always be the opportunity, always the need.”

During the final celebration July 28 the mantle was passed to representatives of the Miami area, where a Celebrate Jesus mission will be held in the summer of 2008.


This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Corbin is a freelance writer based in DeLand, Fla.

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