“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” -- John 13:35
|North Naples UMC reaches out to the community for a food-packaging event that involved 26 churches, along with other organizations. Photos by Zach Hamilton.|
As Annual Conference 2013 nears, many may remember last year's keynote speech in which Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, former National Council of Churches general secretary, exhorted Methodists to be "united in Christ" not only with each other but with other denominations.
Almost a year later, United Methodist congregations across Florida are practicing what he preached and striving to be, as Kinnamon put it, “a demonstration project of what God intends for all of creation.”
Among them is North Naples UMC, where associate pastor David Ames is excited about working with many area churches in the Meals of Hope project. The ongoing hunger initiative focuses on packaging nutritionally complete, low-cost meals for distribution to people in need, both locally and in Haiti. One recent workday involved 375 pairs of hands, from 26 churches, preparing almost 122,000 meals.
“We’re excited about mission as a collaborative effort,” Ames said. “Too often churches tend to protect their own turf, but we’ve found that sharing God’s love via community-based activities speaks to the heart of the gospel.”
Ames said cooperative ministries that involve multiple denominations help develop a church ethos that looks out rather than in.
"It’s not about us,” Ames said. “It’s about the kingdom. When we work together with others, we demonstrate Christ’s love to a world that has received confusing messages about church.”
That sentiment is at the heart of a new project spearheaded by First UMC, Chiefland, a church that averages about 100 worshipers and is trying to pool community resources to meet common needs in the name of Christ.
“I don’t have a job; I have a ministry,” said Diana Child, the church's office administrator, who has been organizing the effort.
“We’re working to bridge the gap between churches and work together to help people in need.”
"We're a rural community, and we should be working together to build this barn."
The nascent Community Resource Program began with talks among First UMC, Catholic Charities and a local Baptist congregation. On May 9, 20 people representing 10 churches and organizations attended the first organizational meeting. Child hopes to recruit many more by mid-summer.
“We’re also putting together a resource packet so people in crisis mode will have all the information they need in one place,” she said.
“The goal is to effectively serve the community and to strengthen one another," Child added.
“We’re potentially opening the door to God’s kingdom, and we’re helping one another as churches. … It’s not about the theology; it’s about the people we’re helping. We’re a rural community, and we should be working together to build this barn.”
|Volunteers on a mission trip organized by St. James UMC, Tampa, repair the home of an elderly resident near Mullens, W. Va. Photo from St. James UMC.|
In Tampa, St. James UMC has seen its open spirit translate into a long-term mission to an impoverished part of West Virginia. Barbara Brosch, executive director of ministries, said the annual outreach typically involves construction work and gives participants the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
This year’s venture involves cooperative work with New Life Community Church, a non-denominational congregation near Mullens.
“New Life was started by Mark Robinson, formerly our youth ministry leader on staff here at St. James,” Brosch said.
“He went to the mission field in West Virginia after serving in the area on our mission trips. His family sold their house and traveled to Mullens, where he brought area churches together to convert an old Big Lots store into a youth hangout.”
Lay leader Cindy Campbell said St. James' mission trips attract a lot of young people.
"I’ve recruited a lot of kids from school carpooling," she said. "We’ve had Hindu, Shinto, Catholic, atheist, the unchurched, and they all come away with the understanding that faith is about giving of yourself, connecting with other people and valuing their lives.
"One said, ‘We’re sweaty and gross at the end of the day, but we know we’ve made somebody else’s life better.’”
The spirit of Christian unity at St. James has led to collaborations with Harvester UMC, Land O' Lakes; South Shore UMC, Riverview; and Village Presbyterian, Tampa.
|Volunteers with a St. James UMC mission trip tear down and rebuild a damaged home for a low-income single mother in Mullens, W. Va. Photo from St. James UMC, Tampa.|
“We’ve been blessed,” Brosch said. "Our church DNA has always been outwardly focused and missional. We’re called over and over again to go into the world and, to share the gospel, we must have relationship-building first.”
Last year, volunteers from four United Methodist churches east of Tampa teamed up with other local congregations to open a ministry for homeless families on the campus of the nearby First Presbyterian Church in Brandon.
Family Promise of Greater Brandon, spearheaded by Skip Wilson, a member of First UMC, Brandon, calls for churches to provide shelter, meals and job referrals to homeless families as needed.
For First UMC, Brandon, the project is the latest in a string of cooperative mission projects, including the I Am Hope Café, ECHO (Emergency Care and Help Organization), The Brandon Outreach Clinic, the Boys and Girls Club, and LifeCare, a pregnancy counseling center.
Regardless of the size of a church and its community, Methodists working in tandem with other congregations and denominations say they experience growth, not only in their personal spiritual lives, but in the effective witness of the gospel of love.
“Not only are we effective in helping people,” said Campbell at St. James, “but all of us come back changed. I will never be the same again.”
-- Derek Maul is a freelance writer based in the Brandon area.