"I feel like God is going to build something new"Missions and Outreach
Congregations throughout the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church faced unprecedented challenges for the last 15 months.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many churches to reinvent themselves on the fly, not only in the way they presented worship services but also in how they continued their vital outreach missions to their communities.
As difficult as that was, the good news is that the people of this Conference came through the storm with praise on their lips and love in their hearts.
With infection rates dropping and normal life slowly returning throughout Florida, this seemed like a good time for a retrospective on how churches dealt with adversity and met the great commandment to love their neighbors.
We begin with First UMC Kissimmee, where Pastor Jose Nieves and many dedicated volunteers from the congregation didn't let the pandemic stand in the way of their community involvement.
"A couple of years ago, we had the experience of reacting to the Hurricane Maria crisis in Central Florida. With the help of many people, we were able to respond to the needs of the community effectively," he said.
|Pastor Jose Nieves|
"This was a different time. In this case, the crisis was all over. But we used some lessons we learned from Maria. We discovered from Maria that when you have established relationships in the community, you can respond more effectively."
Those relationships helped the church focus on their community's most pressing need – food scarcity. It partnered with three Kissimmee aid groups to form a mobile food market.
The need was great. Like many Central Florida communities, Kissimmee was deeply impacted by layoffs caused by the pandemic.
"As we saw how the pandemic was hitting our area, we saw that people would be hungry. And instead of trying to do seven different things, we concentrated on that," Nieves said.
The market provided a low-cost option for families in need. They could purchase a box with up to 20 pounds of food for $5 and could buy as much as they wanted to.
They served about 350 families every other Monday and became one of the largest distribution sites for United Against Poverty.
"It opened my eyes to the power of the church to bring about hope," Nieves said.
"After the pandemic, it will show the need for the church to be the hands and feet of Christ. I can definitely see in the long run that our church is going to be stronger."
"I learned buildings are not as important as we thought." - Pastor Jose Nieves
"There is the absolute necessity for churches to maximize technology to reach people for Christ. Going forward, some people might not go through your door. Some people might be online for a long time before they consider coming through your door. They might never come," he said.
"I learned the buildings are not as important as we initially thought. I think about the importance of community because we have more people involved in small groups and worship than ever before."
The same is true at First UMC Oviedo.
When the pandemic forced the church to suspend in-house worship, Associate Pastor Patina Ripkey got creative.
She organized a Zoom Bible study group that began with a maximum of eight participants, but that number increased as people broke off into new groups.
"It was really awesome," she said. "This was at the darkest time of COVID, and we knew that the most effective way would be small groups."
It didn't stop there.
"We started a Bible study in a talk show format," she said.
The study took place in a studio that looked like a TV station. There were weekly guests and personal testimonies.
In January, the church also started a weekly Bible for men who meet on the Oviedo Brewing Company patio.
The group is called He-BREWS.
"Throughout the pandemic, it seemed like everything was going away. But in the end, it's a new foundation," Ripkey said. "I feel like God is going to build something new. I believe that in my heart.
"I will never be able to force people to do anything, but I can offer choices. I give them multiple opportunities to meet God. I will offer them the bread. You offer Jesus. You offer the Holy Spirit to get them through."'
We see the evidence of that new building throughout the Conference.
Many churches report sharp increases in the number of people who view their services online. There are community gardens in multiple locations where people can get free or low-cost food.
St. Luke's UMC in Orlando sits near the heart of the city's theme parks, which laid off thousands of workers and performers when the pandemic hit.
The church quickly stepped up, partnering with Feed The Need Florida and the 4R Restaurant Group to provide meals for those in the Central Florida arts community who needed help.
That's where the 4R Restaurant Group and its charitable arm Feed The Need Florida came in. Food was made available at $5 per meal. That worked out to $2,500 for 500 meals.
A church volunteer stepped up to pay for that first installment, and then, as Rev. Jennifer Stiles Williams said in an interview last year, "It took on a life of its own."
"Organizations trust us now that we're going to be here and going to help," she said. "The community knows they can come here and not feel embarrassed.
"You've gotta take a risk and trust your gut. God has given us the idea and is blessing it."
That blessing is happening all over the state as United Methodists take the church to the people.
Churches are forming partnerships with local schools to offer homework assistance for students, along with mentoring and support for stressed-out teachers and administrators.
Multiple churches served as COVID-19 vaccination sites.
The Florida Conference Office of Clergy Excellence offered help through Clergy Care to pastors who may have felt overwhelmed by everything that was going on.
"I think the problem is extraordinarily acute," Director Sara McKinley said in an interview last October. "Pastors have been asked to take on a role for which they were not trained. They didn't have any warning, any training, and the pandemic meant they had to figure out how to do it next Sunday.
"It wasn't enough to transfer what they were doing in the sanctuary. They had to transform it."
We are only beginning to realize the full impact of that transformation.
"There's no going back," Ripkey said. "I'm excited to see what God has in store for us next."
Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for FLUMC.org
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