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Giving in the time of Lent (It's not always what you give up)

Giving in the time of Lent (It's not always what you give up)

Volunteers tossing potato bags into truck bed
Volunteers from Ortega UMC, Jacksonville, bag potatoes at the Farm Share food bank, one of six service opportunities arranged by the church missions team in observance of Lent. Photo from Lauren Ballantoni.
Christians everywhere tend to associate the 40 days leading up to Easter with the tradition of giving up something in a spirit of penance. For some, it might be a favorite food. Others give up television or video games.

But churches in the Florida Conference haven’t forgotten the other two “pillars of Lent”: prayer and almsgiving.

Here are some activities going on in Florida United Methodist churches:

Faith UMC, Fort Myers

The youth group at Faith UMC came up with a combination ministry that touches on all three pillars of Lent.

During Lent, youth sell cross pendant necklaces for a small profit in the church foyer before worship services. Proceeds help fund the group’s mission trip, and congregants are encouraged to wear the necklaces – dubbed the “Big Ugly” – instead of fine jewelry in recognition of the season. They also are encouraged to hand them out to loved ones and strangers and offer prayers.

Youth pastor Mike Edwards expects to run out of pendants long before Easter. By last week, only 150 of the 950 ordered were left.

Some people come back to church with stories of how the modest gift sparks conversation and touches strangers. One person told Edwards of being in the checkout line at a retail store and explaining the significance of the necklace to the cashier.

“The cashier started tearing up and said, ‘I’m going through some trying times right now. Could you pray for me?’” Edwards said.

The pendant also has strengthened the connection between churchgoers who attend different services at Faith UMC and never see each other, the pastor said. 

“They’ll see each other in a store and waggle it at each other.”

First UMC, Winter Park

Everyone has them.

Inside kitchen cabinets, coffee mugs sit and gather dust.

But the Coffee Mug Ministry at First UMC, Winter Park, is finding new uses for old mugs at a time of year when Christians either give up something or find other ways to show their love of Jesus Christ.

Together with another first-time initiative – the Creation Care Lenten Activity – the church is asking worshipers to be environmentally aware.
Ceramic mug atop a reusable food container
First UMC, Winter Park, has launched a Creation Care activity for Lent that encourages reusable food and drink containers.
The coffee shared in fellowship in the church’s courtyard, for instance, is no longer poured into disposable foam cups. Members keep an extra mug at the church or bring their own each time. Donations also can be made for special travel mugs provided by the church.

“We are given the gift of the Earth and it’s our responsibility to take care of it,” said Betsy McKeeby, parish nurse at First UMC.

The church has “green teams,” with co-leaders who coordinate activities. Church members can register at the Creation Care Lenten Activity website and pledge one or more daily activities to help the environment.

The list includes options ranging from installing a rain barrel to swapping out old light bulbs for more energy efficient ones.

"Because of the significance of Lent, it kind of focuses on creation and what we as individuals can do both giving up and adding a behavior that supports God's creation," said Lee Cross, a church volunteer and green team co-leader.

First UMC, Sanford

In the past, church members at First UMC, Sanford, put together bags of oatmeal to hand out to the homeless community. But this year, the church plans to fill 100 giveaway bags with personal items, such as wash cloths, toothbrushes, soap, facial tissues, adhesive bandages, first aid cream and facial tissues.

Children at the church, ages 3 to 8, will help fill up the bags and hand them out either on Easter Sunday at First UMC or the Wednesday before at a local civic center.

Volunteer Judie VanHeulen is coordinating the project with her daughter, Joanne Bernasco.

“We’re getting a good response from our church,” VanHeulen said. Community outreach also is bringing in donations of items needed for the bags, she said.

“We’ve visited dentist offices and asked for donations of toothbrushes and toothpaste,” she said. “Dentists have been really good at giving me items.”

Though the church is doing this for Lent, VanHeulen said, “I think it would be nice to do it at any time.”

First UMC, Chiefland
Terry Wines with beard
Pastor Terry Wines will let his congregation at First UMC, Chiefland, vote on whether he keeps a beard as a Lenten fundraising activity for Imagine No Malaria. Photo from First UMC, Chiefland.

First UMC, Chiefland, has a goal of collecting $2,500 for the Imagine No Malaria (INM) campaign. But the church is taking a light-hearted approach to a serious issue.

Pastor Terry Wines is putting his beard on the shaving line.

On Ash Wednesday, he gave up his beard trimmer for Lent.

“I like to keep it trimmed fairly close,” Wines said.

His wife, Amelia, likes the beard, which he has had, off and on, about five years. He went hairy this last time in January.

“It’s still kind of presentable,” Wines said. “Hopefully by Palm Sunday it will be a nice ‘Grizzly Adams,’ not a ZZ Top.”

By Palm Sunday, his congregation will let him know by voting – at $1 per vote, designated for INM -- whether his beard can keep growing or whether he has to shave it.

“If you want me to be clean-shaved, you have to put up some money,” Wines said. “It's something in good fun."

He expects his wife might have the final say with extra money she’s saving from giving up “movies and lots of Starbucks coffee.”

St. Paul’s UMC, Melbourne

Pastor Tom Pope has launched a “40 for 40” prayer initiative at St. Paul's UMC. Congregants have been given a sheet of paper with 40 blank lines to fill with names. Whether they include one of those names in their prayers for each day of Lent or pray for all 40 each day of the season was left up to them, Pope said.

“People enjoy having a targeted focus for their prayers during these days,” he said. “Particularly if they’re praying for a family member, it renews their desire for them to walk in the footsteps of Christ.”

Skycrest UMC, Clearwater

The worship committee at Skycrest UMC wanted to do something special to commemorate the season and zeroed in on Maundy Thursday. The group talked about hosting a dinner, recalled Lynne Read, missions chairperson at the church.

“Then we got the idea of actually working during that day and doing something that mattered,” Read said.

The committee is signing up volunteers to work at one of two places: serving people in need at Religious Community Services Food Bank, an ecumenical ministry supported by Skycrest; or cleaning and painting apartments for Grace House, which provides emergency housing for families. The idea has struck a chord with congregation members.

“I think they’re all excited about doing something for somebody else,” Read said.

The congregation, under the leadership of Pastor Emily Oliver, is trying new ministries, including kicking off the Lenten season with Ashes to Go, a drive-up blessing experience for Ash Wednesday. An Easter sunrise service will be held in a local restaurant, with the expectation of reaching out to other diners with food and fellowship.

“Emily has inspired a lot of people that there is a world out there,” said Read, a United Methodist for 38 years. “I am all for it. I think we have to change with the changing times.” 
Ortega UMC, Jacksonville
Volunteers working in front of Driving Out Hunger truck
Sorting food to go to people in need is among community service activities that may become monthly as a result of Lenten season projects at Ortega UMC, Jacksonville. Photo from Lauren Ballantoni.
In keeping with a Lenten theme of “Restoration,” Ortega UMC’s missions committee challenged worshipers to spend one or more Saturdays during the period volunteering at service organizations that address different needs in the community.

The committee arranged for opportunities at the Developmental Learning Center, which provides day care and educational programs for children with and without disabilities; The Inn Ministry, which provides shelter for women in need who are pregnant or have newborns; Farm Share, a food bank serving hundreds of families each year; Methodist Children’s Village, which offers day care for low-income families; Bridges Across America, a transitional home for men just released from prison; and A Brush with Kindness, a Habitat for Humanity program that provides home repairs to people in need.

Lauren Ballantoni, Ortega missions director, said she was among those who volunteered at Farm Share, where workers bagged potatoes and helped distribute other staple foods to families. Church members are talking about having a monthly volunteer outreach activity, Ballantoni said.

“After the food distribution, everyone left there saying, ‘We want to do this more often.’”

— Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor. Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.