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UMW takes aim at diversity

UMW takes aim at diversity

LAKELAND – When Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin peeked into the dining hall at the Florida Conference United Methodist Women’s “Mission u” in July, she was struck by the range of ages, ethnicities and cultures she saw there.

“I saw many young people of color,” recalled Austin, who became director of Connectional Ministries for the conference in July. She said she will encourage conference leadership to explore the ministry’s methods of attracting participants from all walks of life. 

Talent show at Florida UMW's Mission u
"Mission u," the summer educational event organized annually by the Florida Conference United Methodist Women, attracts participants of all ages and ethnicities through a talent show and classes tailored to meet specific interests. Photos by Nelida Morales.
Young women of different ethnicities pray together at UMW Mission u

“It just amazed me. I wondered … is this a trend? Does this mark kind of a turning point for United Methodist Women in Florida? Is there a message here for churches?”

It’s no accident that people from so many walks of life come together for the four-day educational event, held this year at Florida Southern College, said Jackie Bridges, dean of the Florida United Methodist Women (UMW) Mission u this year.

“It’s always been very intentional,” Bridges said.

The event’s moniker was changed from School of Christian Mission recently to reach out to young people, Bridges said. According to some UMW websites, the lowercase “u” refers to the abbreviation for “you” in texting.

Bridges said organizers design lessons and teaching methods to target young and old, Haitian and Hispanic. They do it by finding topics of universal appeal to disciples of Christ and by offering classes in Creole, Spanish and Korean, as well as English, she said.

Of the approximately 400 who attended this year, about 160 were children age 5 and up, Bridges said.

Many are the daughters and granddaughters of longtime UMW members, she said, and they keep coming back because Mission u takes the age-old admonitions to show faith, hope and love and makes them relevant to today’s issues.

“We actually discuss what that might look like in today’s world – how to apply a relationship with Jesus to real people and real issues,” Bridges said. “I think that’s what calls people.”

One of the main topics this year was “The Roma of Europe,” a study of people commonly known as gypsies or descendants of gypsies who are facing discrimination in housing, employment and education in many countries in and around Europe. Bridges described the population as the “largest ethnic minority group in Europe.”

“It’s an incredible story, and we don’t even know about it,” she added.

People from different cultural backgrounds, often immigrants or children of newcomers to America, tend to identify with topics like that because they have firsthand experience with social injustice, Bridges said.

Recently, she attended a Korean congregation where members of UMW were asked to stand. She counted at least 60 -- almost every woman in the room.

“When you begin to talk about mission, you’re usually talking about social and economic injustice issues,” she said. UMW has a long history of tackling such subjects, including in recent years the issue of migrant farm workers in Florida, Bridges said. Florida UMW members have been active in pressing for better pay and living conditions for people who harvest tomatoes and other crops that keep America fed.

“People feel like they can make a difference,” Bridges said.

She said it is rewarding to hear kindergartners re-tell stories of faith and mission after the Mission u experience.  

Older women's class at Mission u shows participants of mixed ethnic origin
Organizers of Florida UMW's "Mission u" say social injustice themes appeal to mission-minded Christians of all ages and walks of life. Photos by Nelida Morales.

Children and teenagers also are encouraged to show off their cultural differences through dance and song at a talent show, she added.

“It’s my favorite thing,” Bridges said. “The kids do their own cultural thing, and everybody celebrates it. They are affirmed for who they are.”

Classes are tailored to different age groups, Bridges said. In addition to classes for children, youth and adults, there is a special class for young adults up to age 34.

Nelida Morales, Florida Conference UMW president, said the Florida chapter has a reputation for organizing “one of the best” Mission u events in the country. One reason is the attention given to age and cultural differences.

Morales said she spoke little English when she came to the United States from Cuba in the 1960s, later settling in Florida in 1976. Leadership opportunities in UMW helped her overcome language barriers, and she eventually became an elementary schoolteacher. She has helped develop and teach classes for young children for what is now Mission u.

“They have their own curriculum according to their ages,” she said. “It is a lot of work and a lot of responsibility.”

Bridges’ granddaughter, Carmen Miller, 19, of Mount Dora, is among those who have gone to the UMW summer event almost every year since childhood. This year, Miller stepped in as Mission u song leader.

“I love how informational it is and how much fun it is,” Miller said. She said she has made lasting friendships across the state through the event and participated in missions that benefit the hungry and homeless.

Morales and Bridges said UMW changed their lives by providing leadership opportunities and the support of Christian fellowship. They share a passion for recruiting others.

Next year, Bridges said, the Florida Conference UMW chapter will take a close look at reaching out to people with disabilities.

“That opens up a whole new inclusivity issue.”

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