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The backyard mission field

The backyard mission field

Above, a mission team from Eastern Pennsylvania begins shoring up a storm-damaged second-floor porch. Below, Rev. Patti Aupperlee, left, comforts homeowner Sandra Suggs, who becomes teary-eyed as mission team leader Debra DePrinzio talks about what volunteers will do to help save her home. Photos by Susan Green.
Rev. Patti Aupperlee, homeowner Sandra Suggs, Debra DePrinzio of Eastern Pennsylvania Conference

PAHOKEE – A short drive from the mega-mansions and posh playgrounds of Palm Beach’s rich and famous are living conditions that some struggle to believe exist in the U.S., let alone one of the nation’s wealthiest counties.

Here, the GAP is not a trendy clothing store but a nonprofit food pantry with more than a third of the local population -- 3,000 families -- on its client list. Within walking distance are homes where the sky peeks through holes in the roof and sunlight slices up through cracks in the floor. Tattered blue tarps testify to the lingering damage of storms long past.

Even before the Great Recession, many Pahokee residents who depended on farm jobs were losing out to technological advances that replaced human hands with machines. As the economy sputters back to life across the state and nation, some reports suggest the unemployment rate around Pahokee remains stuck around 30 percent.

Small wonder, then, that a sign tells motorists leaving the parking lot at Pahokee’s First UMC, “You are now entering the mission field.”

The sign is not just a reminder for the downtown congregation, which numbers less than 160 members and draws about 70 in regular Sunday worship. Last week, the church hosted a large mission team from out of state: 80 teens and adults from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.

The visit was a first step toward First UMC Pastor Patti Aupperlee’s vision of turning the congregation’s spacious campus into Mission Central for worshipers willing to work. With the help of the Florida Conference’s Disaster Recovery Ministry, she has been putting the word out that First UMC would like to be a mission destination or a training ground for mission teams learning to work together.
“This is a great community in great need,” she said.

Inside the church, air mattresses filled the sanctuary and annexes that were built when hundreds filled the pews on Sundays. Outside, United Methodists descended on troubled neighborhoods, assessing damage, choosing tools, buying supplies and sharing prayers.

Hank Lunsford, a member of Trinity UMC, Sarasota, and the UMC Emergency Response Team based in Sun City Center, has been part of so many mission trips to Pahokee that he takes visitors on tours as though it’s his hometown. It took some time to build trust, he said. People didn’t nod or wave or make eye contact until his fourth visit. 

Hank Lunsford of Trinity UMC, Sarasota, approaches home in Pahokee
Above, Hank Lunsford, a Florida Conference disaster recovery volunteer, approaches a Pahokee mobile home in need of repair. Below, Michael Clymer of Cokesbury UMC, Marcus Hook, Pa., works on a mission team to remove rotted wood in a storm-damaged carport for a Pahokee family in need.
Michael Clymer of Eastern Pennsylvania Conference removes rotted beams

“We’re looking at generational poverty,” Lunsford said, driving past a government-subsidized housing community on the way to a trailer park where several of the Eastern Pennsylvania teams were deployed.

“In my 13 years of mission work, I’ve never seen such depression in people. I’m really upset. This is America.”

Among those receiving assistance was a young man who told volunteers he moved into a single-wide mobile home without knowing its state of disrepair. Inside, windows and wall paneling were held together by duct tape, cracks in the kitchen floor revealed the ground below and there were problems with the wiring.

“In a big city, they would condemn it and take it away,” Lunsford said. “In Pahokee, they take it and he’s homeless.”

In another part of town, Sandy Otto greeted mission workers with a mixture of relief and disbelief. So often she and her husband, a Vietnam veteran, were promised help that never materialized, she said.

“God – and I know this without a doubt – has answered our prayers.”

Volunteers swarmed around the rotting carport of the home where the Ottos have lived for 26 years. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 dealt the first blow, Otto said, and other storms have since taken their toll. The damage infected the front room of the wood-frame house, and the family uses it only for storage.

Homeowners insurance paid out only about $2,000 on a storm damage claim, with promises to reimburse additional expenses after the carport was restored, Otto said. But the family could not come up with the money to fix the damage, and the insurance company was now threatening to cancel their policy. She said her husband had been working on the repairs as he was able, but he was logging 80 hours a week as a supervisor on a sod farm 30 miles away. 

Down the street, another team of volunteers got to work on the crumbling second-floor porch of Sandra Suggs’ house. Her husband, also an Army veteran, suffered a paralyzing stroke two years ago and remains in a nursing home. The storm damage dates to a spate of hurricanes in 2004.

A member of nearby Canal Point UMC, Suggs’ needs came to Aupperlee’s attention through church connections. Others heard about the Methodist mission workers and asked for help. 

First Pahokee Pastor Patti Aupperlee talks about opening her church to mission teams
Rev. Patti Aupperlee talks about making churches with space to spare into mission hubs as she stands in a fitness room surrounded by a mission team's sleeping bags and air mattresses at First UMC, Pahokee.
 Rev. Patti Aupperlee listens as a woman talks about repairs needed at her home
Pahokee resident Merriell Bellie, foreground, shows First UMC Pastor Patti Aupperlee how the windows of her home expose the interior to water and air.
 Mary Lucy of Pahokee with Kathy Kurtz of Eastern Pennsylvania Conference
Mary Lucy of Pahokee, left, prepares for her first ever Bible lesson as she waits for mission volunteers to return with supplies to build a wheelchair ramp for her home.

Aupperlee got back to her office for lunch the first day of Eastern Pennyslvania’s visit and found a woman who saw the volunteers working in her neighborhood waiting to find out if she can get on the list for help. The pastor took her information and promised to see what she could do, then huddled with other leaders from the Florida and Eastern Pennsylvania conferences to talk about money.

After pooling resources, including $1,800 from the Florida Conference, the teams agreed to spend $10,000 to repair roofs, build wheelchair ramps and address other structural needs in the community.

Debra DePrinzio, disaster response coordinator and youth mission team leader for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, said her group would cover up to $6,000 for building supplies. That was on top of the costs of renting a caravan of vans the team brought from Pennsylvania. They also supplied most of the tools for the projects.

DePrinzio said she has been leading UMC mission teams across the U.S., including many storm-damaged areas, for 20 years.

“I’ve seen more poverty here than I’ve seen in a lot of places,” she said of Pahokee. “I would say it’s in the top five [impoverished] places.”

She said she became interested in Pahokee as a mission destination after talking with Greg Harford of the Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry during a national meeting in Kansas City, Mo., in 2011. Members of eight different churches made up the visiting mission team. Volunteers began planning in January and many received training in construction skills.

“I wish more churches would open up their doors to serving the community,” DePrinzio said. Inviting teams to work and stay at a church can mean temporary inconvenience for members, but the blessings outweigh the drawbacks, she said.

“We know we’re supposed to leave the place better than before we were here, and we are supposed to glorify God while we’re here.”

Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans, Missional Engagement director for the Florida Conference, said he was impressed with Aupperlee’s approach to “demonstrating Christ’s love in tangible ways.” He noted that she has worked with other churches and organizations in Pahokee to improve living conditions in the community.

“She’s not a pastor of a church with a lot of resources,” he said. “She’s an incredible broker of resources.”

Campbell-Evans noted that his is a new position, and he has been grappling with just what “missional engagement” ought to look like. He said he did not have to look further than Pahokee.

“Here’s a pastor that’s shown us all how to it.”


Key West UMC opens doors as a mission destination

Open doors of Key West UMCKEY WEST – Sunny beaches, sparkling waters and plenty of sightseeing opportunities have long drawn visitors to this island at Florida’s southern tip, and United Methodists are not immune to Key West’s charms.

“We get a lot of requests from groups who want to stay here and do mission work,” said Rev. Ruben Velasco, pastor at Key West UMC. The church has been affectionately dubbed “Old Stone” by many familiar with the building.

“We get booked pretty heavily, especially in the summer,” Velasco said. “We believe God has given us this beautiful building, so we open our church for people to come here.”

Last year, the congregation installed 12 bunk bed units on the second floor of the education building and a shower in the fellowship hall to make visits more pleasant and convenient for mission groups.

While in town, mission participants typically volunteer in the local soup kitchen, minister to a fairly large homeless population, perform odd jobs for neighboring residents or churches in need and donate time to Habitat for Humanity, Velasco said. Some also go preach on the beach.

Parking continues to be a challenge. But many of the mission opportunities are within walking distance, so vehicles can be left at home, Velasco said. College students and youth groups book the facilities a lot, but the church also has hosted leadership retreats. He recommended inquiring about a stay at least three months in advance.

“I feel that ever since we opened our doors to missions … God has blessed us in many ways,” Velasco said.

“Attendance has gone up. [Financial] giving has gone up.  … We try to be a church that not only talks the talk but walks the walk. We get involved in the community.”

“I believe mission work  … opens the doors so that we can preach [the word of] Christ,” the pastor added. “It makes it more authentic.”

- Susan Green

-- Susan Green is the editor of the Florida Conference Connection.