First Naples is welcoming home for Irma recovery teams

First United Methodist Church of Naples Pastor Nancy Mayeux and members lay hands on a mission team from Richfield, Ohio. -Photo courtesy First UMC Naples.

If you stay faithful to what He wants you to do, God will increase your numbers. That's one lesson Pastor Nancy Mayeux imparts to her church as members embrace the challenges they face.

A financially struggling and venerable old church, First United Methodist Church of Naples is not unlike other churches in South Florida's coastal retirement communities. 

Outside and in, it's a beautiful facility. The church was founded in 1891 and still uses a building constructed in 1930. But age has taken its toll and there is often something in need of repair.

Faith UMC team members at their Southwest Florida work site. -Photo courtesy Faith UMC of Champaign, Ill.

The church is located in a wealthy neighborhood of downtown Naples, with opulent homes behind lavish landscape, and a few of its members are people of means. But its membership and regular Sunday attendance of 100-250 is primarily middle class. The preschool student body, children's ministry and youth group are drawn from throughout Naples.

The church membership and staff are small, but together they get a lot done.

The church already was working to increase membership and stewardship last year when natural disaster struck.

But when Hurricane Irma came through in September, there was no need to hold a big meeting and change the church's mission. Nobody said, “We need to do something!”

In addition to hosting Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous meetings, the church partners with organizations who help low-income children, collecting school supplies and clothing, and matching members with Angel Tree children at Christmas for Salvation Army. 

“The congregation really came through,” Mayeux said. “A lot of these kids lost everything because of the hurricane.”

Members' mission work is truly “hands-on” with the recovery ministries at Justin’s Place and St. Matthew’s House. So, it was only natural that they answered another call to house relief workers making post-Irma mission trips to Southwest Florida.

First Church hosted groups of 30 people from Community of Hope church in Loxahatchee, Fla., near West Palm Beach; 14 from Faith UMC in Champaign, Ill.; and 16 from Richfield United Church of Christ in Richfield, Ohio, in early 2018.

The Rev. Sheryl Palmer, lead pastor at Faith UMC, guided a team that stayed at First Church Jan. 4-10 for the Illinois group's first-ever college mission trip.

The mission team from Faith UMC stayed at First Naples Jan. 4-10. -Photo courtesy Faith UMC

Team members slept and ate in the large youth recreation area on the second floor. During the day when Methodist Day School was conducting classes downstairs, the team members' work took them to Everglades City, where they helped restore the water-damaged manufactured home of an elderly man and his 8-year-old great-granddaughter.

“He lost his wife in March and his home in September,” Palmer said of the man, 74.

“He and his great-granddaughter were amazing. Our college students really enjoyed connecting” with them.

With assistance from Florida United Methodist Conference construction workers, the Illinois team primarily installed drywall in the manufactured home. Weeks later, the older Richfield team slept on the same youth-room floor, worked on the same manufactured home, among others, and bonded with the little girl as well.

While damaged homes undergo rebirth thanks to the mission teams, First Church’s opportunity to support the teams contributes to the church’s spiritual growth as well.

When mission teams “move in” at First Church, routines are disrupted, as church and self-help groups shift. But everyone willingly sacrifices, moving elsewhere on campus for a week or giving up amenities such as wi-fi.

With more than 220 people visiting the church each week for 12-step meetings – programs the church considers important ministries, not just “outside groups” – parking also can be a challenge when mission teams arrive.

When groups come, the youth group offers them its room for a week. It’s an ideal place for team members to rejuvenate after a long day in the field. There's Foosball, air hockey and a pool table, a full kitchen with a new stove, restaurant-style booths, diner-style bar stools and other features. The room is divided into separate living quarters for men and women.

Air mattresses, donated or on loan, are made available. The local YMCA donates shower time. The church's hospitality committee provides newly arriving team members with a few meals while they get acclimated. Then they provide their own food. A couple who are members of First Church treated the Richfield team to a cookout in the backyard of their waterfront home.

John Sahakian of St. Mary Student Parish at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is a retired Chrysler engineer who has been on about 15-16 mission trips with Richfield UCC during the past dozen years, beginning post-Hurricane Katrina. Over a sunset cookout of gourmet cheeseburgers, Sahakian said the reception from First Church has been great.

Members of a mission team from Richfield, Ohio, enjoy a cookout at the home of a member of First United Methodist Church of Naples. -Photo by Ed Scott

“What can you say?” he said. “Everybody’s been generous and kind, and it’s been a pleasant experience all around.”

“They’ve been bringing us stuff every day. It’s unbelievable,” added Larry Uher of St. Victor’s Catholic Church in Richfield. Uher’s wife, Pat, said church members dropped off cookies and brownies too. Somebody donated money for a team dinner and the sunset cookout was well-received.

“People have been very nice in every place we’ve gone, but we’ve never been received so greatly,” she said. 

Speaking by phone after her mission trip, Pastor Sheryl said her team's time spent at First Church was wonderful.

“They worked hard with us,” she said. “They helped us get set up. They supported our cook and our entire team. They helped us find places for food. They provided snacks and goodies. They worshiped with us and said a blessing over us and were just a joy to work with.”

After hearing in church about the Illinois team members' mission, First Church member Rod Sturgeon joined them at the work site. He says after the service he located Pastor Sheryl and asked if he could help, as he had done construction work during college.

Sturgeon met team members on site the next day and worked with them and other volunteers from a local Rotary Club. He was so impressed with the work being done, and with the appreciation shown by the property owner and his great-granddaughter, that Sturgeon worked a couple more days after the Illinois group returned home, he said.

After Hurricane Irma, Pastor Nancy gave members the good news. The church did not flood; there was not even a single window broken. They did, however, lose a few trees and had roof damage on almost all buildings.

Members of a mission team from Richfield, Ohio, utilize a kitchen in the youth room at First United Methodist Church of Naples. The team was in Collier County during mid-February. -Photo by Ed Scott

Two companies repaired several roofs at the church and the parsonage after the storm at reduced cost. Now church officials hope to pay remaining Irma-related bills through a new $300,000 capital campaign. In today's financial and demographic climates, targeted major gift donations to churches are rare. So the church is relying on smaller donations from more families.

Some churches in the conference, particularly on the coasts, have aging memberships and few young families poised to take their place, both in leadership and stewardship. First Church is not immune. Mayeux, who worked in international business prior to her call to ministry, helped grow a church in Pinellas County before moving to Naples with similar goals.

“We're working very hard on church growth,” she said, “on trying to invite new people into the church.” There were 19 first-time attendees on Sunday, Feb. 4.

“It says in Acts that God increased the numbers, so we know that God can do it,” Mayeux said. “And I have watched God do miraculous increases of numbers in previous churches. I know God can do it, but we have to do our part, so we are doing that now.

“Whether they ever come to the church or not, we want to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.

Editor’s Note: Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger! #flumcWeAreBigger

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Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger!

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