ST. AUGUSTINE -- Visitors to Sunday services at Shores UMC will find a lot of seats filled by some unusual occupants.
In each row of the worship hall, there’s a teddy bear sitting on a chair.
Newcomers may wonder what they’re all about, and Shirley Jordan is happy to greet them and tell them all about the Shores Prayer Bear Mission.
Each bear wears a sign, held by a ribbon tied around its neck.
The sign says: “Hello, I’m a Prayer Bear. I have attended worship services at Shores United Methodist Church in St. Augustine. Worshipers have prayed over me, and now I am coming to comfort you with a prayer. Hold me, hug me, and know that I bring love and blessings from God and the people of Shores United Methodist Church.”
Those attending a worship service are invited to take a bear to give to someone in need, said Jordan, who initiated the ministry at Shores in 2013.
“Several walk out each Sunday,” said the woman who has nicknamed herself “The Bear Lady.”
Jordan brought the ministry to Shores in 2013, when she moved from Georgetown UMC, Welaka. Georgetown had picked up the idea from Jan Lohr, a snowbird who brought it down from her church in Colonial Beach, Virginia.
The ministry offers support to people of all ages in all sorts of situations, Jordan said. It’s an outreach that doesn’t require a large church or a lot of money.
“It’s a free mission because the prayers are donated,” she said. Church members also donate bears.
“Once in awhile, we’ll get low in a particular size and I’ll go to the thrift shops and buy some and clean them up,” said Jordan, who makes the rounds to five area thrift shops to replenish supplies. She also hits yard sales – once as far away as Michigan. While visiting friends, she found 12 big bears at a yard sale, which presented a challenge for getting them back to Florida.
“Our suitcases were full. It was a problem. I borrowed a duffle bag, got some of them stuffed in the duffle bag and shipped it through. The others, we either carried or stuffed in a paper bag and carried,” she said. The entire collection made it to Florida.
The ministry accepts all sizes of stuffed bears. Sometimes they need a little refurbishing, which comes from a good stiff brush. Jordan also donates the ribbon used to attach the signs.
“It’s been a very, very popular mission,” Jordan said. She estimates her church has given out 400 to 500 bears. Her former church has given out more than 1,000.
At first, Jordan did everything on her own. But recently Janet and George Milroy and their granddaughter, Kyra Liedtke, stepped forward to give her a hand.
The Milroys help get the bears ready for distribution, and their granddaughter places the bears on chairs before the first service. Jordan takes care of the second service. She also tidies up the bears and adds new signs when needed.
“The kids like to play with the bears, so I have to keep replacing the tags. We don’t discourage them.”
Jordan often gives bears to people who do not attend the church.
“In fact, one day I was in Goodwill [store] because I was running low on bears. I had chosen about 10 bears and I had them in a buggy.
“There was a lady and there was a little girl. And obviously, [they] had very little money,” she said. “The little girl kept looking at the bears.
“Once I had paid for them, I chose the biggest one and gave it to her. I said, ‘Normally, this has to sit in the church pew. But I’m going to pray over this bear and you can have it.’
“She was so, so happy,” Jordan said.
Some people just borrow a bear, she said.
“We have a live-in community near our church for people with Down syndrome and mental handicaps. And, about once a month, they come over to our church. They love the bears. They often take them home with them, but they always bring them back,” she said.
They could keep them, but apparently someone where they’re staying tells them to bring them back, Jordan said.
In one case, a bear was buried with its owner, Jordan said.
That bear was given by Jordan’s church in Welaka to a woman living in Ohio. The woman’s son was a quadriplegic.
“When her son died, he wanted the bear buried with him,” Jordan said.
Prayer bears aren’t the only way that Shores UMC reaches out to offer prayer and comfort for others.
Participants in the church’s Vacation Bible School recently made 55 prayer pillows for patients at the local Bailey Hospice Center. The younger children stuffed the pillows and the older kids sewed them up.
-- B.C. Manion is a freelance writer based in Tampa.