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Florida Conference answers Epiphany's call to bring light into the world

Florida Conference answers Epiphany's call to bring light into the world

Fill The Table Missions and Outreach

In the United Methodist Church, Epiphany marks the Magi's arrival to visit and honor the Christ child. They came at God's direction, offering, as we know, gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. We celebrate that journey and gifting on Epiphany Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021.

The Bible doesn't record Mary and Joseph's reaction upon receiving these valuable gifts, but it's likely they were surprised and overwhelmed at the generosity of three strangers.

Break it down.

The Magi were obedient and intentionally generous. Modern-day Epiphany in the Methodist Church is built on that pillar, the light going out into the world to serve. That's especially important in this time of COVID-19, where the need is great and amplified by weariness and fear.

"The celebration of Epiphany is the celebration not only of God's light but of the recognition of God's light in the world. It is when we stop and say, I want to follow that light,' " South East District Superintendent Cynthia Weems said.

"And, as churches, it is when we are reminded of our primary task – to share the light of Christ in the darkness of our world. This year, the light of Christ is needed more than ever, and our churches have been remarkable at sharing the light in small and large ways."

Churches throughout the Florida Conference have answered that call.

One way was through Bishop Kenneth H. Carter's bold goal, announced in July, of providing three million meals in the next calendar year to those most in need. The initiative is called Fill the Table,

The goal is to engage 100,000 United Methodists throughout Florida and people of other denominations and civic agencies to help provide food to individuals and families facing devastation during this pandemic.

“There are simply massive human needs. Florida is a beautiful and prosperous state with a fragile safety net. We needed a tangible way to share with each other,” Bishop Carter said.

“God’s grace is sufficient, and sometimes there is even an abundance. But many enter now into a season of scarcity, and this was a way of connecting us."

Rev. Marta Burke 

Pastor Marta Burke of Plantation UMC saw Epiphany as "a way of reaching out" to a community in pain. The church worked with the city of Plantation as a distribution site for more than 500 bags of groceries.

People lined up at 5:30 a.m. to receive the food.

The church formed a partnership with the Gold Coast Porsche Club to pass out $4,000 worth of $10 Publix gift cards.
It didn't stop there. Later that afternoon, it offered a live community Nativity to the community that included a petting zoo.

They followed all proper COVID-19 safety precautions, and the payoff was the reaction they received from some of the more than 200 people who came to watch.

"Someone mentioned to me that it was the first time their family had gotten out as a family since this whole thing started," Burke said. "We had to be creative. We had to find a different way of doing ministry. The church is not just inside the walls of the building. It's going out into the world."

That's what members at Cypress Lake UMC in Fort Myers are doing, even in this time of COVID-related restrictions.

Each week, approximately 30-40 church members serve at the South Fort Myers Food Pantry. The help is needed because the number of people relying on the pantry has doubled since March.

The church hosted a meal-packing day that led to more than 90,000 meals packed for distribution. They also hosted a meal packing event and packed over 90,000 meals. They collected $20,00 for food and eight tons of canned goods in 2020.

"We have shared many of these resources with Tice UMC in the community next to ours. We give the gift of food every week," Rev. Robert S. Bledsoe said.

The church held a Season of Caring In November, partnering with seven local non-profits that serve abused women and children, teen moms, survivors of human trafficking, and its school church/partnership.

"We collected over $10,000 in gift cards and several SUV full of toys and delivered them anonymously," Bledsoe said.

"This way, the organizations can provide, and we don't need or want the credit. That is very important to us. We gave the gift of Christmas to those who would not have had the resources to do it."

Rev. Michelle Shrader was appointed to Good Samaritan UMC in Tallahassee just as churches were struggling with the impact of canceled in-person services. It was a new community and congregation, but it also was an opportunity, even if she had to start slowly.

Her ministry coach had an idea.

"He encouraged me just to call people," she said. "It was very challenging at first. You're talking to people you've never met. I could tell we needed to surround people.

"I identified about 12 people in the church who have the gift of listening and good hearts. They call a group of people, and it's helpful to me that they can identify those who need a pastoral call. People really appreciate you reaching out to them."

Out of those beginnings came a call to reach out beyond the church walls.

"There's a development right across the street from our church called Southwood. They have a lake and a walking track around it. Because of COVID, we decided we would start a ministry called Trekking Light. We invited people of Southwood to join us," she said.

"It's a Fresh Expression. We start our time together with a little scripture and a time together. People have started to notice us. We were easy to pick out; we're wearing yellow shirts."

Shrader called upon what she learned during a three-year appointment in South Africa. In that country, people light peace, hope, and justice candles encircled with barbed wire to remember how the light overcame the darkness from the apartheid years.

She brought the candle symbolism to her Good Samaritan ministry.

"We might not have wrestled with a worldwide pandemic before. The heaviness of darkness is not something we've experienced. We've lit the candle," she said.

That opened the way to talk about other major moral issues of this time, including homelessness and human trafficking.

Raised awareness can turn into action.

It can turn into an Epiphany.

"I don't just think of light; I think of expanding light. The light marks the Wise Men finding Jesus, but it's also what led the Israelites out into the world. It's the expanding gift," Shrader said.

"There's an expansiveness. There is changing and growing. We're reaching people we've never reached before. And I think some people might be more open to accepting change."

It's also about having an accepting attitude.

For instance, during a pre-Christmas Eve outdoor worship service at Fulford UMC in North Miami Beach, a group of young adults from a local drug rehabilitation center came to worship together on a warm, South Florida evening.

As the service of Lessons and Carols concluded, one of the residents shared, "This was just what I needed today." She then assisted with the breakdown of musical instruments and general clean up from the service.

She asked aloud if she might return for future events.

"Sharing the light of Christ means sharing hope. It is hope in what God has already done for us," Weems said.

"It is hope that tomorrow does not have to look like today. Right now, at this moment, that is the good news for our communities and our world."

It is the light that still shines through the darkness, illuminating hope. It's the promise that drew the Magi to seek the Christ child, and it's what sustains us today.

Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for

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