Ministry amid coronavirus: stories from across the Great Plains

David Burke

4/8/2020

 

The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the creativity, compassion and caring of churches and clergy in the Great Plains Conference. 

In the past few months, new ideas have been tried and longtime staples have been adjusted because of the limits of crowd sizes and the dangers of infecting some populations. 

We intend to highlight those ideas in this space, which will be constantly updated. If you would like to let the rest of the conference know about the new ideas and changes that have taken off because of this unfortunate situation, please contact David Burke in our communications department, dburke@greatplainsumc.org

 


WORSHIP & PREACHING

 

'A part of it'

Brandt Carlgren saw a problem and had a plan to fix it. 

“My grandma, at her church they did Facebook livestreaming, and I thought it would be cool for our church to do that,” Brandt, who attends Kansas’ Courtland UMC, said of the church in nearby Scandia. “There’s some older people that can’t get out of their house and stuff, and if they have Facebook, they could watch it live.” 

Brandt is 10 years old. 

Brandt Carlgren

The fourth-grader at Pike Valley Elementary started livestreaming the first Sunday in February, but since the pandemic his skills have been needed for both the Courtland and Scandia churches, which share a broadcast

“I had to learn a lot,” Brandt said of the task. 

“He didn’t have Facebook, so he had to look at it and see how it works,” added his mother, Katie, a vocational agriculture teacher at Pike Valley High School. 

Katie said the livestreaming has been a constant learning process for her son. 

Lesson one, on the first week: It gets tiring holding a cellphone all through the service. Shortly after, he invested in a tripod. 

He also found and troubleshooted sound problems in the service. 

People in both churches have been appreciative. 

“They love it,” Brandt said. 

“They like being able to see everything,” his mother said. “They feel like they’re a part of it even if they aren’t there.” 

The videos have received more than 1,000 views and had several hundred engagements, his mother said. 

Katie recalls how excited her son was after the second week of livestreaming. 

“I think this is cool, Mom, because some people don’t know about church,” he told her. “They get to see our church and maybe they’ll want to come, or maybe they can keep watching it on the phone. At least they get to learn about it and know about God like that.” 

“I thought that was pretty cool,” she said of her son’s realization. 

Brandt, as well as one of his two siblings, is deaf and has a cochlear implant. That has heightened his concern about the livestream being available to more people. 

His mother said he is working with his deaf-education teacher to figure out how to close-caption the feed. 

“It increases the accessibility that much more,” she said. 

Brandt already has plans to be an architect when he grows up, and enjoys drawing and constructing, his mother said. 

The 10-year-old’s absence, either to visit his grandmother or because of sickness, is felt, his mother said. She, and well as Sandra Jellison-Knock, the Courtland-Scandia pastor, and her husband, the Rev. Randy Jellison-Knock, a retired UMC pastor, have combined forces to run the livestream. 

“It never goes as well when Brandt’s not there,” Katie Carlgren said. “We try hard, but we think he’s the piece that makes it all work.” 

 


New perspective

The Rev. Shelly McNaughton-Lawrence performed her first funeral since the coronavirus pandemic — for her own mother. 

Rev. Shelly McNaughton-Lawrence

LuAnn McNaughton died April 18 at age 83 in a Merriam hospital. She had tested positive for COVID-19. McNaughton-Lawrence and her two siblings put on masks, robes and gloves to say their goodbyes, and each began a two-week self-quarantine. 

“It’s really quite hellish, honestly, to have a loved one in the hospital and to not be able to advocate on their behalf and to take care of them the way you want to,” McNaughton-Lawrence, pastor of Olathe Aldersgate UMC, said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody else.” 

McNaughton-Lawrence led graveside services on April 23. She, her siblings and two spouses were the only ones to attend, with a mortician and two cemetery personnel. 

The service was livestreamed on Facebook Live. Although the livestream was in consideration of friends and family who weren’t able to attend, it was still unnerving to McNaughton-Lawrence. 

“I kind of forget in my role as pastor how vulnerable and how intimate grief is. Now it’s out there for the whole world, if they’re interested, to see that vulnerability,” she said. “It’s nothing I’m embarrassed about, but it’s certainly more revealing than I’ve ever tried to be in any social media platform I’m present on. I can’t control that.” 

McNaughton-Lawrence said there are plans for a celebration of life service for her mother once social distancing and crowd-size restrictions have been lifted. 

A pastor for more than 30 years, McNaughton-Lawrence had already noticed a changing tide in funeral plans, where a service might happen weeks or months after a death. Four funerals were planned over the month of March at Aldersgate, she said. 

COVID-19, she said, only exasperates that. 

“The hard part now is that … there’s this expectation of what we thought we’d do,” she said. “Now you’re putting yourself out to do two things: a graveside that’s immediate and later on maybe something, which I think would be exhausting.” 

McNaughton-Lawrence’s father died in an auto accident in July 2016, and the family had not made advance plans for his funeral. For her mother, some discussion had been made. 

A lesser-expensive casket was chosen, her daughter said, but a thicker vault was needed since the casket was presumed to contain the virus. Her mother was not embalmed, McNaughton-Lawrence said, since that would have exposed the mortician to the virus. 

“We’ve made that important in the history of the death-and-dying industry. Is it important?” she said of embalming. “We’re going to have to deal with the realities of what happens when people die, and we don’t embalm them and they decay.” 

McNaughton-Lawrence said her mother’s death will change the way she interacts with families of the deceased in the future. 

“The things I used to say about saying goodbye might not be available,” she said. “If I had not seen my mother and not been able to say goodbye, that would have been a whole different situation. I think my language is going to change. It feels like it’s changing in terms of talking to families about death and hospice and saying goodbye.” 

LuAnn McNaughton, a retired longtime civil servant for the federal government, was still active in Shawnee UMC, counting the weekly offering until shortly before her death, her daughter said. She had been hospitalized for dehydration when a 10-year-old case of lymphoma was discovered to have spread to the rest of her body. 

McNaughton-Lawrence noticed that the expressions of bereavement have had to change as well. She received several gifts of food from her congregation that had to be left on her front porch. Human contact, which McNaughton-Lawrence values as part of the grieving process, was not allowed. 

“If we don’t have touch as a mean to express our support, then what are the other means we can express our support?” she said. “There’s going to be new traditions that emerge for grieving and how we support the beloved. I don’t know what those are yet, but I think there’s going to be new things happening.” 

McNaughton-Lawrence said her mother’s death has caused her to think of what the future might hold for other grieving families. 

“We have a duty to the dying, but we have a sacred responsibility to the living,” she said. “You have to balance those two things.  

“That is changing, because we can’t do it like we used to do.” 

 


Working together 

Washington UMC already had a good working relationship with the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches in the north central Kansas community, collaborating for vacation Bible school, Sunday school, youth group and “Fifth Quarter” after-high school sports gatherings. 

Rev. Daniel Norwood with Presbyterian and Lutheran pastors

“When I got here I really wanted our church, the Methodist church, even though it wasn’t the largest, to take the lead as the church that did things at the behest of the community, as much as we could,” said the Rev. Daniel Norwood, pastor at Washington, Barnes and Haddam UMCs. 

So when the size of gatherings restricted church attendance and pastors began to look for alternatives, Norwood invited the Presbyterian and Lutheran pastors to join him at Washington UMC (calling themselves “Trinity Churches Washington”) for a joint service, which was already broadcast on the local cable access channel as well as Facebook Live. 

“It’d be a bigger community service, at least three of the bigger mainstream Protestant churches together,” said Norwood, who has added a daily Facebook devotional since the virus. Here’s an online preview. 

For the first service, March 22, Norwood and the Presbyterian pastor had a dialogue about the raising of Lazarus and a passage from the book “The Message” by Eugene Peterson. 

“It was fun to do a little something different,” he said. “We’ve got plans in hand for the next couple of weeks.” 

The differences between the denominations were ironed out quickly, Norwood said. 

“There’s been a little bit of negotiation, but nothing too bad,” he said. “We changed a few things to make it a little more ecumenical.” 

The pastors already had a good relationship, Norwood said, meeting weekly for “extended coffee and conversation.” 

“It was just an easy thing to do,” he said. 

 


Sermon under self-quarantine

Nine months into her first appointment, the Rev. Maddie Johnson has likely done something her colleagues cannot claim: leading a church service while under voluntary self-quarantine.


Rev. Maddie Johnson

The pastor at Winfield Grace UMC had flown back from a vacation to Atlanta and Orlando earlier in March and was on a list from the Cowley County Health Department of recommended persons to go into self-quarantine.

But she still delivered her March 22 sermon, in the middle of her two-week exile, from her house, filmed by the Rev. Ben Hanne, a Winfield Grace member and former campus minister at Southwestern College.

Johnson said Hanne kept his 6-foot social distance space from her while filming her sermon, and creatively filled much of the rest of the video with scenes from the architecture and elements of the church building.

“Ben has really wonderful cameras and audio, and that definitely made our video high quality and accessible and clear,” she said. “He just had this vision, and he made the video very polished and professional. That was very unique to our situation, to have him available to do that work.”

Youth in the church were recruited to do some of the off-camera readings, and a video testimony from a family was among the elements of the 65-minute service.

Johnson’s self-quarantine ends March 27, the same day she will record the March 29 service from the church.

She said she learned a lot during her two weeks of quarantine, adding she didn’t have any of the coronavirus symptoms.

“You have to be really diligent to say, ‘I’m not working now,’ because your work is your computer and your phone. It’s not the separation I used to have of going to the church and coming home,” she said. “So much of my job is being interrupted in important ways, like running into people in the coffee shop or in the church, so the normalcy of my job has been taken away.”

With her family long-distance, she’s already used to communicating by phone and video means, she said, which became a necessity during the self-quarantine.

“It required a ton more communication on my part,” she said. “I’m grateful for technology.”
 


DIY, working together

For the Rev. Stefanie Hayes, the livestream of her churches at Ord and Sargent, Nebraska, was part do-it-yourself and part relying on her church community.

Rev. Stefanie Hayes

The DIY was in production. A longtime amateur videographer, she loaded her iMovie app and took care of all of the elements, readied in advance for release on Sunday morning, including recording her own sermon.

“I literally did everything from my iPad,” she said.

Encouraged by the Rev. Anne Gahn, pastor of Lexington UMC, she added different voices from her church to the service. “I loved that idea,” Hayes said.

Third-graders read the Lord’s Prayer and the benediction, and youth added elements to the 30-minute service.

“They just recorded it on their phone and sent it to me, and I dropped it into iMovie and made cuts as I needed to,” Hayes said.

The church’s musicians, husband-and-wife guitarists, recorded music for the service shown March 22. That afternoon, Hayes invited any musicians in the church to her home to record 10 hymns that will be used for devotionals and worship in the near future.

Hayes encouraged engagement in her video, with an online greeting time for people to say hello on Facebook and YouTube.

“Worship is participatory, even if we’re not together,” she said. “I tried to make it as interactive as possible.”

The same video was offered by both Ord and Sargent churches, although Ord churchgoers were featured in the first service, Sargent will be spotlighted in the next and the two will alternate.

“They get to know each other’s faces,” she said. “It’s a way for me to build a unified community as well."

 


‘Fireside chat’ 

Sensing restrictions were on the way in the way she conducts her church service, the Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, pastor of Omaha St. Paul Benson UMC, experimented with putting her cellphone on top of the baptismal font to record her sermon for two weeks. 

Rev. Jerry Brabec and Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede record their worship for Omaha St. Paul Benson UMC.

When restrictions on crowd sizes were announced and alternatives were imperative, she opted for a more relaxed approach. With the Rev. Jerry Brabec, deacon of the church, at the piano, she introduced a 23-minute video with a “fireside chat,” a la President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

“To me, why not admit that this is what’s happening?” Ahlschwede said two days after its debut. “The truth is, we’re not going to be having a service in the traditional way. Why not do our presentation in a nontraditional way?” 

A COVID-19 task force was formed at the church, and its five members suggested that Ahlschwede tape the presentation on Saturday morning before airing it on Sunday. 

“Just because people can’t see it until Sunday morning doesn’t mean we can’t prepare it ahead,” she said. 

The 16-hour lead time gave a volunteer time to caption the lyrics to the hymns. “Some folks were very appreciative to see the words to those songs. All it took was adding two or three people to the process to make it really bloom,” Ahlschwede said. 

Ahlschwede said she liked the way she could deliver her sermon in a closer space in a more intimate way. 

“When this crisis is over, we might continue to do this anyway as a ministry,” she said. 


 


Making a HUB 

With a video camera pointed at him and other staff members, the Rev. Gary Brooks entered unchartered territory on March 17 — making his first Facebook Live video. 

“I’ve been in ministry for 44 years, but I’ve never done that before,” Brooks, pastor of Wichita Aldersgate UMC, said after his first video. “I’ve resisted Facebook and social media, but necessity is the mother of invention.” 

Brooks and the Rev. Emmanuel Afful, associate pastor, were seated at a table in a conference room of the church for the debut of “Inspiration HUB.” 

“HUB” is an acronym for “Happy Under Blessing.” 

“If people want to know what that means, that’s an open door for sharing the Gospel,” Brooks said. 

Even with an admittedly shaky start — no one could figure out how to get the time stamp and other icons off the screen — and publicity that began only that morning, 80 people viewed the video, which included scripture and music as well as a short sermon and discussion. 

Aldersgate cancelled church on March 15, Brooks said, and the video was a way to reach out to members. 

“We’re not set up to do livestreaming or anything like that,” Brooks said, adding that it did have a CCLI license to project hymns. “We’re figuring this out as we go.” 

The church is also reaching out to its older members. Armed with a list of 12 pages of members and regular churchgoers over 70, the church’s Caregiver Ministry is contacting each of them, checking in and seeing if they can be of any service, including running errands and picking up groceries. 

“Just to have a voice to talk to and see if they have any needs,” Brooks said. “What we’re trying to do is with the lowest level of technology possible and the least expense, because money is tight, try to keep connected with our people.” 

 


Sharing a sermon 

They’re married to each other and shared pastoral duties at their first two churches, but the Rev. Amanda Baker and the Rev. Ross Baker had never preached a sermon together until March 15 when their only live congregation was their children and a tech person in the sanctuary of Baldwin City First UMC, where Amanda is pastor. 

“We are inventing and innovating as we go,” Amanda said at the beginning of the video

Rev. Amanda Baker and Rev. Ross Baker lead worship for Baldwin City First UMC, Lawrence Centenary UMC and Eudora UMC.

Amanda said one of her church members has been keen on livestreaming services for the past six to eight months and had begun to broadcast her sermons. 

When services were canceled at Baldwin and Lawrence Centenary UMC and Eudora UMC, where Ross is pastor, the idea came to Amanda. 

“I just kind of threw it out there that we could do one livestream and send it out to all three congregations,” she said. “The one thing we had never done, although we served together two years when we were in seminary, was to do a sermon together.” 

All of their congregations were studying the same book — Matt Rawle’s “The Grace of ‘Les Miserables’” — so it seemed like a logical subject, she said. 

“Let’s just have a conversation and let it happen in an informal way. This is not what people are used to anyway,” Amanda said. “It was kind of a fun thing to do a little bit of conversation and let it be something that invited others into conversations rather than ‘Here’s information we’re putting at you.’” 

Her only regret was not having an additional person to check the prayer requests that she and Ross had asked for, Amanda said. 

“It’s all been sort of, ‘Let’s learn as we go,’” she said. 

The Baldwin church has applied for a CCLI license so it will be able to add music on future Sundays, she said. She’s not sure whether she and her husband will share a sermon again next weekend. 

A change of pace meant changing her philosophy, Amanda said. 

“When we do these things as an optional trial, it feels like the kinks have to be smoothed out and it has to be a solid plan, and it has to be kind of perfected before anyone can see,” she said. “When we do it in an emergency situation, there really are no other options, no better options, we have room to bumble. We have room for it to be messy — not exactly the way we’d like it to be. We can say, ‘Well, now we know.’” 
 


‘UM Home Companion’ 

Co-pastors of Abilene First UMC, the Revs. John and Jenny Collins, decided for a down-home approach to their livestream. 

Literally. 

Rev. Jenny Collins and Rev. John Collins lead a "United Methodist Home Companion" for Abilene First UMC.

Declaring it “The United Methodist Home Companion,” the Collinses conducted worship service from the couch in their parsonage. 

“It really becomes the church when you guys are there with us,” John told the congregation at the start of the video. “Without you it doesn’t work as well.” 

Abilene had been streaming its services for about a year, he said, using an iPad as a camera. With their daughter behind the iPad, they conducted their worship service. 

“We just brought the iPad home and set it up in the living room,” he said. “Luckily we could take the setup that had been working for us and bring it home.” 

John said that past experience with smaller services, such as Holy Week, has shown how cavernous the sanctuary is with even a congregation of several dozen, and that a livestream from church didn’t make sense. 

“That sanctuary feels empty at that point,” he said. “The thought of Jenny and I and maybe one or two other people being there did not attract us.” 

And, John said, having a service at the church might be an unintended invitation for church members to show up. 

“It was easier to put signs on the doors and do it from home. I didn’t want to turn people away if they showed up,” he said. “The best way to turn them away is for me not to be there.” 

A logistical hurdle was that the service was also on the AM radio station in Abilene and couldn’t be cut short. 

“We kind of improv-ed and encouraged questions and some of that,” he said. “We think as time goes by we’ll get more of those.” 

Jenny has been appointed as the Topeka and Flint Hills district superintendent for the 2020-21 year, and John will be the solo pastor at Abilene. 

John said he and Jenny were pleased with the outcome of the first “home” video. 

“We got a lot of good feedback from the people who said they liked and appreciated that format,” he said. 
 


Formal and traditional 

While other church leaders turned to a casual format with their new livestreaming opportunities, Omaha First UMC stayed formal.  

Mark Kurtz, left, Rev. Kent Little and Rev. Don Bredthauer conduct livestream worship at Omaha First UMC.

The Rev. Kent Little, senior pastor, and the Rev. Don Bredthauer, retired clergy, both wore suits and ties, and music director Mark Kurtz wore a suit jacket.  

“This is a different experience for us,” Little said at the beginning of the 40-minute video. “We want to make sure, as much as possible, that this experience is as if we are together in one place.” 

Little said the church staff felt the formal look and keeping most of the elements of the traditional church service would be most comforting to the church members worshipping online. 

“Understanding that we couldn’t do the whole nine yards, we decided we wanted to do something that would feel very familiar to our folks,” Little said. “Obviously, anybody can be log in and watch, but in terms of staying connected to our community of faith, we wanted it to feel familiar.” 

When restrictions on crowd sizes were made the week before, Little said he and the staff did not want to cancel worship. 

“We wanted to create a worship experience where people who had the capability to log into Facebook or follow us had the opportunity to gather, so to speak,” he said. 

Little says he expects that format to remain until the coronavirus threat is lifted. 

“As long as we’re not meeting for worship in person, we’ll continue to do what we did,” he said. “For our first go at it, it went off pretty well without a hitch.” 

 

COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Double blessing 

When the $1,200 economic stimulus check arrived for the Rev. Christopher Eshelman and his wife, they viewed it as an unnecessary blessing. 

“It became evident that my wife I were going to get $2,400 that we frankly didn’t really need because neither of our incomes have changed,” said Eshelman, pastor of Pretty Prairie and Murdock UMCs

He momentarily thought of using the money to pay his tax bill, but quickly reconsidered. 

“There are people that need help, and how can I use that to be a blessing?” he recalled. 

As chair of the Pretty Prairie Community Association, Murdock was aware that 27 families in the town of fewer than 700 couldn’t pay their utility bills since the pandemic. 

That’s two to three times the number who typically have fallen behind, he said. 

To pay off all those families’ bills would be about $6,000, he said. The back months alone would be $3,800. 

Eshelman — who gave about half of his and his wife’s stimulus money to charities — wrote several newsletter articles asking the congregation to join him in giving to the newly established Good Samaritan fund. 

Despite no response for the first few weeks, the fund is now more than $3,000. 

“Some of them are large, some of them are small, but every little bit adds up,” he said. 

Establishing the fund and being public with his gifts goes against long-held beliefs by Eshelman, he said. The pastor changed his mind after a churchwide reading of the New Testament. 

 “A lot of Paul’s letters are him making himself an example. There’s this kind of fine line between showing off and being an example,” Eshelman said. “I thought, I need to be accountable and public.” 

The fund helped not only those who have fallen behind but erased a stigma for them in the Reno County community. 

“I know how stressful it is for city staff in this small town where we all know each other. Shutoffs are hard,” he said. 

One of Eshelman’s friends is a city employee who said the only part of her job she doesn’t like is having to shut off utilities. 

“We can do a double blessing here,” he said. “We solve the person’s financial difficulty with the bill, and we take that load off the city staff.  

“Not too many things where you can bless multiple people at the same time.” 
 


Mortgage help

The Rev. Amy Lippoldt said her congregation at Papillion St. Paul’s UMC was ready to financially assist those in need in the area – they just weren’t sure who.

“We are really lucky that our congregation has been pretty well-insulated from economic impacts,” said Lippoldt, completing her first year as pastor in the south Omaha suburb. “There’s definitely a desire out there to help.”

Lippoldt said her heart had been leading her toward those who might lose their housing because of the coronavirus pandemic. After consulting with her church council, she approached Sarpy County Human Services, which has an assistance fund for renters.

Is there a fund for those who can’t make their mortgages, Lippoldt asked. No, she was told. Have there been requests? Yes, there have.

“That was enough for me,” she said. “We’re going to raise money for mortgages, specifically in Sarpy County. Not that there aren’t other needs elsewhere, I just feel like we’re called to love our neighbors – our direct neighbors. And we’re in a position to be able to do that.”

A week and a half after announcing the special offering on the church’s website, St. Paul’s had raised more than $9,000.

Days later, a check was cut to Lift Up Sarpy County, the fund’s administrator.

“Even though I had the goal of $10,000, I didn’t expect it to happen this fast,” Lippoldt said. “I was glad we were able to turn the money around so fast.”

Lippoldt and her husband, a research scientist/grant writer/editor, didn’t see a cutback in their paychecks because of the pandemic and felt more of a need to give, she said.

“Our paychecks are whole, and we want (the stimulus checks) to go to families who are struggling, whose paychecks aren’t whole,” she said.

Lippoldt said she wanted to keep the momentum going.

“I would love it if we would blow through that $10,000 (goal),” she said. “We’ll take money as long as people give it.”
 


Big picture

The stewardship and finance committee of Manhattan College Avenue UMC met in April with an eye on the big picture.

“We’d encouraged church committees to think, ‘How can we adapt ministry to address what’s going on now in the circumstances we’re in?’” the Rev. Dennis Ackerman said.

The committee’s recommendation to the church council hit the mark, he said.

“Their recommendation was basically to designate or allocate 10% of our undesignated general fund into a COVID-19 recovery fund,” Ackerman said. “We put aside in the beginning, $13,400, and we’ve been encouraging individuals to donate.”

In its first month, the fund reached nearly $33,000.

The first priority was to members of the church community, Ackerman said.

“This fund was set aside to assist the social agencies in the community, and if there were in-house needs and fortunately, we haven’t had much of that,” he said.

It made its first distribution, to the United Methodist-supported Friendship House in nearby Ogden, for $5,000.

An outreach committee will make recommendations for other funds and other social agencies.

“Some of (the agencies) have said they’re thinking there will be a high demand when the eviction moratoriums end and people are going to be seeking help for various things,” Ackerman said.

Several College Avenue members contributed their entire stimulus check to the effort, he said.

Ackerman said the fund will go on as long as the community needs COVID-19-related help.

“We’ll continue to encourage this,” he said.

 


Food for need

When the Reno County Foundation Board gave $10,000 to the Pastors in Partnership group in Buhler, Kansas, there was only one stipulation.

“We had to spend it and not hang onto it,” said Rebecca Stark, the Certified Lay Minister who serves as pastor of the Buhler UMC.

The pastors group, which also includes the ministers at the local Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches and the senior care home, as well as another Mennonite pastor with a three-point charge that serves Buhler, first used their money to supply 85 families with food boxes.

More food distribution will take place in the near future, Stark said.

The town of about 1,300 has not seen a major impact from the pandemic, Stark, in her ninth year serving the Buhler church, said.

“Currently we have several families – three, maybe four – who have asked for some assistance for bills and we’re going to help them,” she said.

The next distribution will expand eligible families to include the Buhler school district, which includes parts of nearby Hutchinson, Stark said.

The Buhler UMC operates the only food pantry in town, which Stark said has not been used as much as anticipated.

“I don’t know if people have a stigma about going into the church in town if they don’t attend there,” she said. “We can’t figure it out.”

Stark said she and the other pastors are anticipating more of a need later this year.

“We think it will far-reaching and there will be more need when school starts,” she said. “It’s one of those things where we wait and see.”

 


10,000 and counting

Volunteers from Omaha FaithWestwood UMC quietly hit a milestone on May 7, distributing their 10,000th protective mask.

“They just kept making more masks,” Vikki O’Hara, director of caring ministries at the church, said of informing volunteers. “They had no idea.”

A recipient of a FaithWestwood UMC face mask. Contributed photo

The effort started in early March, not long after FaithWestwood joined other churches in canceling in-person services. O’Hara, who has a background in health care, was trying to convince volunteers and fellow staff members that everyone – not just health professionals -- was going to need masks to go out in public.

“They say, ‘You’re always a week ahead, you always know,’” she said.

With a “secret stash” of elastic and more ordered from a fabric company on eBay, she distributed kits of materials for 20 masks apiece to volunteers, many of whom were already volunteers in ministries making prayer shawls and crocheting mats for the homeless from woven grocery bags.

“I got on Facebook and asked, ‘Anybody want to make masks?’ It started with two or three people saying, ‘Where would we wear them?’ O’Hara recalled. “And it started to evolve with more people saying they’d help. It became clear to them that this was not going to be a temporary thing.”

Eventually her team of volunteers grew to about 28, along with family members working from their homes. Not all sew, but there are other responsibilities, she said.

“Having something meaningful to do and having a purpose while you’re stuck at home has really been a lifesaver,” she was told repeatedly.

One necessity on the masks, O’Hara said, is a muslin lining for the nose and mouth. Too often, she said, mask wearers reverse the masks and expose others to their germs.

O’Hara has realized what a hot commodity masks have become.

A thousand were donated to Restoring Dignity, an immigrant support organization in Omaha. The next day, fewer than 300 were left.

Many are going to refugees in the area who work for meatpacking plants.

“The virus has really hit the Omaha meatpacking plants this week,” she said on March 8. “That’s where they’re very concerned, a large percentage is in the immigrant community that are being diagnosed. The numbers are going up in Omaha, really quickly.”

O’Hara said the Rev. Steve Todd, Faith-Westwood lead pastor, wanted to trumpet the 10,000-mask accomplishment to the local media, but she was afraid of what it might mean.

“I said, “Are you kidding?’” she recalled. “Just in word of mouth, I know for sure there’s 4,000 more masks that people need. I don’t want the church to say, ‘Sorry, we can’t do it.’”

O’Hara said she sees no end in sight, especially with increased reports of cases in the Omaha-Lincoln area.

“As long as people need masks, we have to keep going,” she said. “I have more requested now than ever.”

 


Thank you with cookies

Colby UMC wanted to show appreciation to the unsung heroes of the community, the “people who help keep things going,” the Rev. Patrick Broz said.

And that way was with baked goods.

“There are lots of bakers in our congregation. I think this church is known for cookies,” Broz, pastor at Colby since 2018, said. “It’s playing to the strengths of what we already do well.”

Colby UMC volunteers pack cookie trays. Contributed photo

But he knew he needed the support of two parishioners: Amie Kendrick, who is in charge of the funeral meal ministry, and Shirley Malcolm, who Kendrick calls “kind of the queen of cookies in Colby.”

“People order her cookies by the dozens,” Kendrick said.

Once they were on board with the idea, 10-12 more bakers began making cookies, gathering on Thursday afternoons to distribute them to various groups by Broz on Friday.

Estimating three cookies per person, platters of the goodies have been taken to emergency personnel one week, sheriff’s department and city police department another week and employees at Colby’s five convenience stores.

Each platter includes a note with calligraphy by Kendrick.

The idea spread to thanking the truck drivers who pause at one of Colby’s two large truck stops along Interstate 70.

Malcolm puts three cookies in a baggie, along with notes that say, “Thanks for keeping America going.” Broz brings them to the truck stops and gets in conversations with the drivers.

“That has been an incredible experience to hear … how many different people from different locations come through town each day,” he said. “Most truckers are just glad to talk to someone, other than the windshield. They’re readily ready to visit.”

Word of the cookies has spread throughout the western Kansas community, Broz said. The church is the site of lunch distribution for the Colby school system, and he has been handed plates of cookies by non-church members for the project.

“People are striving and wanting to be a part of something right now,” Broz said.

The distribution, where volunteers wear masks and gloves and no cookies are touched, Kendrick emphasized, are fellowship at a time it’s needed.

“It’s been fun to get together and work on the cookies,” she said. “It’s been nice to show the workers who have to keep working, that aren’t able to stay home, that we appreciate them.”

 


More food distribution 

Longford UMC had already been in charge of commodities distribution to the southern half of Clay County, Kansas, every other month for several years, the Rev. Debra Tompsett-Welch said. 

So when additional food distribution had to take place because of the pandemic, the church got the call. Its first distribution was April 23. 

Tompsett-Welch credited Karen Benfer, the church’s secretary, with spearheading the distribution away from her time on the clock. 

“She’s sort of an unsung hero in my book,” the pastor said. 

Ten to 12 volunteers – now with masks and gloves, trying to keep a six-foot distance from each other – help to distribute the food to people waiting in their vehicles. 

“It gives them, I think, a sense of purpose for our church to do that, and a sense of fellowship when they do that together,” Tompsett-Welch said. “It’s one of our small groups, so to speak.” 

 


Heroes wear choir robes

Rita Smith brought together two problems to make a solution. 

Manhattan First UMC, where she has been a choir member for 30-plus years, received new choir robes last fall and had a rack of 50 robes that she was trying to sell or give away somewhere in the conference – “They’re royal purple, K-State purple, and I knew anybody around Lawrence wouldn’t be interested,” she said with a laugh. 

Medical personnel show off the former robes.

And as the mother of three physicians – a Manhattan internist, and a pediatrician and emergency medicine doctor in the Kansas City area – she also knew that personal protective equipment (PPE) was getting harder to obtain for medical professionals nationwide. 

“I have kids out there. They need this,” said Smith, who has a sister in Georgia who was one of the early deaths from the COVID-19 virus. 

The solution: Why not turn the choir robes into PPE? 

“It was just a brainstorm. I wasn’t sure if it would work or not,” she said. “I knew those robes weren’t doing anybody any good where they were.” 

With the help of three sewing volunteers – and a big assist from the costume designer in the KSU theater department who helped cut the length of the robes with a serger – the sleeves of the robes were cinched to be able to put rubber gloves on, and the fitted bodies of the gowns were loosened.  

“It looked more like a uniform gown would be. They cover you well and come up to the neck,” Smith said. “They can be washed.” 

Smith made sure of that with an experiment in her own laundry room, setting her machine on power wash with hot water and adding bleach to clean and disinfect the robes. 

“I tortured it as much as I could and it came out just fine,” she said of the 65/35 polyester/rayon robes. “Before we started the whole thing, we knew it was going to be work.” 

The 50 choir robes, used by Manhattan First for the past 18 years, were equally divided for men and women, Smith said, while a majority of the medical personnel –physicians, nurse-practitioners and physician’s assistants – needing them were female. 

“The robes went a lot further than I anticipated,” she said. “It was like putting half of a jigsaw puzzle together with limited pieces.” 

The medical personnel were appreciative of the purple robes, Smith said. 

“They were really good sports about it,” she said. “Even the docs who graduated from KU Med. The Manhattan natives who went to K-State loved the purple.” 

One of the volunteers attached a card to the finished product: “Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear choir robes!” 

“It turned out to be a very heartwarming project for all of us. We’re so glad it worked,” Smith said. “The fact that they could be reused just made it wonderful.” 

Downplaying her own role in the project, Smith – whose husband, Mike, sings in the choir with her and recently retired as an agriculture professor at KSU – said the idea was an example of how everyone in the country is thinking smarter during the pandemic. 

“There have been a lot of people in this crisis I’ve noticed who really think outside the box and come up with amazing ideas. That’s what we need to do. If I could encourage anybody, it would be to think of a solution to a problem that would work, and not just be a band-aid.” 


 


Abbey survival

The uniqueness of Omaha’s Urban Abbey — a hybrid church, campus ministry, coffee shop and retail store — was something that’s always been celebrated by its pastor, the Rev. Debra McKnight.

“Sometimes I feel like if we were a normal church, this would be easier,” McKnight said. “In some ways it would be easier to just be doing our work from home. But we have baristas and managers and retail.”

After some hesitation, McKnight said the baristas at the coffee shop were let go, leaving a manager and assistant manager working.

“My goal is to keep them in place, and we’re shuffling around the work a little,” she said.
Revenue at the coffee shop for the last half of March was down 85% from the previous year, she said.

Urban Abbey is offering curbside takeout, thanks to a new online ordering system.

“We’re trying not to have physical transactions where we’re taking cash from someone or touching their credit cards,” McKnight said.

A bright spot, McKnight said, is that while she’s working from home, she’s making daily Facebook Live videos with her school-age daughter, reading books from Urban Abbey’s shelves.

“That’s kind of generated some interest. A few people have called to order books to be sent to their grandkids,” she said. “We’d love it if like 50 more people did that.”

While Urban Abbey had three Sunday services, it is combining for one service livestreamed on Sunday mornings. A new church member has been assisting with the service and improved the technical aspect of the stream, she said.

Urban Abbey is joining with Omaha First UMC for an online Maundy Thursday service, and will have a Good Friday service with a short sermon, McKnight said.
McKnight has spent much of her time since the pandemic shutdown ministering to her business neighbors in Omaha’s downtown Old Market neighborhood, including hair salons and taverns that have temporary closed.

“They don’t have a lot of cushion, or really any,” she said. “I’ve been in conversations with some of the downtown small business owners, just being present in their uncertainty.”

Since she is in much the same situation as her neighbors, is it difficult for McKnight to be optimistic?

“I don’t know if you have a choice to not be,” she said. “It’s hard to be hopeful, but I think it’s essential. I feel like that’s our one calling — hope over despair. If we can’t offer hope in the midst of despair, we probably need to take a break.”

 


Helping the hungry

For three years, Nebraska’s Central City UMC has tried to meet the hunger needs of the community by distributing food from the Omaha-based Food Bank for the Heartland.

“Too often a church takes the shotgun approach — we’re going to do everything, and then you’re not good at anything,” said the Rev. Tom Lucas, the church’s pastor. “Our church, in the past few years, has made sure we’ve focused on providing food for the community, whatever the community needs.”

The coronavirus pandemic changed the way the monthly distribution, on the first Saturday, is done. Recipients stayed in their cars while volunteers from the church, wearing gloves and masks, brought the 25-pound boxes to them.

The boxes contain canned and dry food, as well as a loaf of bread and one-pound bags of apples, potatoes, oranges and onions.

The church could accommodate four cars at a time in its parking lot, Lucas said.

The church served 260 cars on April 4, an increase from the 200-family average the church normally serves, he said.

“It worked extremely well,” Lucas said. “The weather was perfect for it.”

There was food left over, he said, and the remainder was assembled into packages and put outside to be picked up by members of the community.

About a dozen church members volunteer with the distribution each month, Lucas said.

“What we’ve found is that the experience helps us,” he said.
 


'Every stitch a prayer'

When officials from Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln contacted Joanne Bell, director of adult ministries at Lincoln St. Mark’s UMC, about sewing masks for the hospital, the first person that Bell thought of was church member Jan Lepard. 

“When I contacted Jan, she was already making masks,” Bell said. 

Some of the first masks sewn by Lincoln St. Mark's UMC.

The church is in the middle of making 500 masks for the Lincoln hospital, Bell said. Half of them will be used in the hospital, and the others will be distributed to local health care providers. 

St. Mark’s is sharing the duties with Lincoln Berean Church. Lepard’s son-in-law is an executive with Lincoln-based Duncan Aviation, Bell said, and is a member of the Berean church. On Duncan’s website, St. Mark’s and Berean are called the two largest churches in Lincoln. 

“The nice thing about Duncan is that they cut the material” and is in charge of distribution, Bell said. The company also worked out a price break with the local JoAnn Fabrics store. 

Construction of the masks, Bell said, came after the Rev. Wayne Alloway, senior pastor of St. Mark’s, asked for sewing volunteers during the March 22 online sermon. Sixty-eight women — and one man, Bell noted — signed up. 

“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I’d be asked to sew masks to save lives!” Lepard wrote in a Facebook post. 

But this may only be the beginning, Bell said. 

“There will be more, and there will probably be different things we’ll be making like gowns and caps and things like that,” she said. 

Bell said it could lead to more cooperation with the Berean church. 

“We’ve got this neat partnership,” she said. 

Although having the communal experience of working together on a project like this might have helped, Bell said the sewing volunteers feel they are important in the cause. 

“I got an email from one of the women,” Bell said. “She said, ‘Each stitch is a prayer.’ Last night when I read it, I cried.” 

 


Lunches on the doorstep

Silver Lake UMC’s plan to leave coolers of lunches at its front door began with intentional prayer time by the church’s pastor and his family.

“What can we do?” Alex Rossow asked with his wife, Gena, and their four children, ages 10 to 1. “As parents, we want to model for them what to do in situations like this.”


With no school and students relying on one or two meals a day there, Rossow said, the answer was obvious.

“Why don’t we just try to see if there’s a need in our community,” he said. “We made a family Sam’s Club run (to Topeka, 15 miles away) and got enough stuff to make 50 lunches and said, maybe this will, but if it doesn’t, we tried and we felt like the spirit was moving in that way.”

Three coolers were left in front of the church with the lunches.

The first day, 16 were taken. The next, 18. By the end of the week, the number had ballooned to the 30s.

By the last few days of March, 51 and 63 lunches were consumed a day.

On April 1, Rossow said, Silver Lake schools will begin a grab-and-go lunch program, which may cut the church’s numbers.

“We just wanted to fill that gap and make sure the kids were being fed,” he said.

While the district is limiting its lunches to students, Rossow said the church’s was open to everyone, with senior citizens even requesting delivery.

It’s spurred another church in town to ask to join in its efforts, Rossow said.

Church members and others in the community have donated food and money for the effort, he said.

His family has turned the lunchmaking duties over to volunteers, keeping the number of workers limited by crowd restrictions.

Workers pray over each lunch as they are prepared, Rossow said.

“We’re providing a need, but we also want people to feel God’s presence,” he said.

While the first foods were prepackaged Lunchables to distance from any food preparation, the menu has changed to ham or turkey sandwiches, a package of chips, a protein, fruit and packaged cookies for dessert.

Rossow said the lunch program has had a positive effect on his church, where he has served since 2018.

“It’s brought people closer together in community,” he said. “It’s something everybody in the church is behind — a common vision, a common focus, a common purpose. That’s been something amazing to bring about more community. When we have common vision and purpose, we can do great things.”
 


Café concern

Like many towns across the Great Plains, Melvern, Kansas, has one café that has had to adjust to carryout and curbside delivery to survive.

But Melvern UMC is reaching out with gift certificates to Kathy’s Kitchen to keep its café going.

“They wanted to find a way they could support a local business and let people know we’re still caring,” said the Rev. Kathleen Whitmore, the church’s pastor.

With the help of owner Kathy Young, the church purchased 300 $10 gift certificates and inserted them in the city utility bills, along with an invitation to watch the church’s first livestream service on YouTube, March 29.

The church also gave Young $500 upfront for the first 50 meals.

“If she runs out of money, we’ll give her some more,” Whitmore said.

The gift certificates expire in six months.

One of her church members had the idea to help the restaurant, Whitmore said.

“He called the rest of the board members, and they all agreed to it,” she said. “They’re all really excited about it.”

Young was very receptive to the idea, Whitmore said.

“She was really, really excited about it,” Whitmore said of Young, who has had the café for the past several years. “It’s been getting really hard for her.”

Whitmore applauded the idea.

“It’s a nice way of letting people know we care,” she said.

March 29 is the first livestreaming service for the church, which recently debuted its website.

“When I got there, they didn’t have a computer,” said Whitmore, who began at the church in July. “We’re working into technology.”
 


Yoga outreach

As a freshman at the University of Kansas, Grace Woods discovered yoga.

“I started doing this when I was trying to choose a spiritual discipline that was really meaningful to me,” Woods, now a senior, recalled. “For me, I think scripture and praying with intention is important, but it didn’t activate my mind as much as I wanted it to for a daily practice.”

She incorporated yoga with prayer and scripture.

“That way I had a full mind-body connection and it was a spiritual outlet for me,” she said.

Woods, director of community outreach for the Wesley-KU campus ministry, began leading weekly yoga classes.

Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, Woods moved her lessons online. She hosts a weekly session at 5 p.m. Mondays on the Wesley-KU Facebook and Instagram pages, and Tuesdays through Thursdays leads yoga over Zoom (the ID to take part in the Zoom classes is on the Wesley-KU Instagram bio.)

“It’s been a lot different than in person,” she said. “In person, especially on the college campus, it’s a lot more intimate and close.”

Woods said she’s been surprised at the following the Facebook/Instagram sessions has received.

“People have messaged me from all walks of my life who have been able to see it and engage with it, which is really great,” she said. “It’s just a lot different than I’m used to, but I’m glad to be able to provide that for people. It’s exciting to have it reach outside the traditional walls of my campus ministry.”

Woods will graduate this spring, and will attend Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Illinois this fall, on the deacon track and planning for a master’s of divinity and a master’s in social work.

After a spring break cruise to the Bahamas that included connecting flights in Illinois and Florida, Woods went into self-quarantine at her home in Tonganoxie, but said she’s showing none of the coronavirus symptoms.

Woods said she and her fellow Jayhawks have come to terms with the cancelation of activities and the shift to online classes.

“At first there was a lot of frustration as things really changed for us. Now that everyone’s settled, we’re starting to get into the groove,” she said. “There’s a little bit of frustration and grief there, but also just coming with peace with those things knowing it’s the right thing to do.”
 


Lesson from TP

Rev. Chris Jorgensen of Omaha Hanscom Park UMC stands behind a "fortress of toilet paper" the church recently donated.
 
In her last sermons at Omaha Hanscom Park UMC before virus-caused shutdowns, the Rev. Chris Jorgensen said Christians should be “helpers not hoarders,” and not “hiding behind their toilet paper fortress.”

Following the sermon, a church member informed her that the church likely had its own TP abundance, thanks to semi-annual “Stock Up the Church” drives.

“Goodness knows we can’t say out loud, ‘Don’t hide behind your toilet paper fortress’ and have our own toilet paper fortress,” Jorgensen said with a laugh.

Considering distributing the hot commodity themselves, Jorgensen said, it was decided to donate the dozens of rolls to Together Omaha, a homeless service organization that Hanscom Park already aids through its annual Mardi Gras celebration.

“It was obvious they would be the ones we would reach out to,” she said. “They provide services that help get people back on their feet, not just give them a Band-aid.”

Together was glad for the donation, Jorgensen said.

“Right away they responded with lots of exclamation points in their email,” she said with a laugh.

Jorgensen said she and her congregation learned a lesson thanks to the toilet paper.

“We have a job of saying, ‘We have an abundance, so it’s OK for us to give it away,’” she said. “That’s so hard to do right now.

“Are we people of abundance or scarcity? If we believe in abundance, we know we can give things away, and it’ll come back in exponential ways,” Jorgensen added.
 

Lunches in Lyndon

When schools in Lyndon, Kansas, announced their cancellation for the week of March 15, Lyndon UMC Pastor Lauri Beach and Mary Brooks, 5 Rivers District lay leader, hit the road for the supermarket in Osage City (Lyndon, a town of 1,200 doesn’t have a grocery store) to buy enough supplies to make 50 lunches for schoolchildren.

The mission has grown to nearly 140 lunches daily, with trips to a warehouse club in Topeka for food and help from church members in the food service industry who were sidelined by the closing of restaurants.

“We kind of kept going,” Beach said.

With concern about food safety, only the sandwiches are made in the church kitchen, and the rest of the items are prepackaged.

“It may get to the point where there’s no availability,” Beach said, noting limits on items imposed by the stores.

At 4 p.m. daily, volunteers gather to make sack lunches that will be distributed from 5:30 to 7 p.m. for meals the next day.

Beach said it fills a need in the community brought on by the closing of school.

“We’ve got a lot of kids who depend on those breakfasts and lunches from school,” she said.

Members of the other two churches in town have donated money toward the lunches, Beach said. Money also came from a memorial that was designated several months ago to help feed the community.

There may be additional concerns on the horizon, Beach said — Meals on Wheels, based in Ottawa, may have to cut back or temporarily eliminate its service in Lyndon.

“We’ve decided we’ll make casseroles and stuff if they stop it,” she said. “We’re emptying our freezers and making stuff if that’s what it comes to. We need to make sure our community is taken care of.”

The sack lunches continue a partnership with Lyndon schools that already has resulted in getting a new piano to replace the 70-year-old keyboard in the school.

“I’ve been working on partnerships with this community since I got here, and it’s paying off,” said Beach, who began at the church in July. “We’re coming together and working on things.

“Our partnerships have just been so vital.”
 


‘Give and Gather’

Borrowing and building upon an idea of a few families in the community, Seward UMC in Nebraska placed a large tote outside its back entrance with non-perishable food items and other goods for those in need.

“I got to thinking there might be some people who might not feel as comfortable going to somebody’s house to pick up some things, for all kinds of reasons,” associate pastor JoEllen Axthelm said. “I thought if it was in a neutral space, it’d be more helpful (than) at somebody’s house in the neighborhood.”

The large rubber tote, dubbed the “Give and Gather Box,” was put in a well-lit area that would keep everyone safe, she said.

“We invited our church family to help fill the box and keep it filled,” Axthelm said. “Other people have shared it so they know there’s multiple places in town now where you can give and gather.”

The box was set out on Friday, March 20, and by Sunday morning every item had been taken and was replaced with something else.

Peanut butter, soups, crackers, canned meats, canned and boxed goods filled the box, Axthelm said.

“People tried to figure out what they would want in a box,” she said.

The church maintained its weekly Food Net distribution on Thursday nights, with an invitation that if anything else was needed that it could be found in the box.

One family was recently in need of the most sought-after item of the pandemic, toilet paper. Axthelm volunteered two rolls that were in the church supplies.

“There’s not as much of a need in church right now,” she said.
 


Front door food

At its first staff meeting after having to lock its doors to restrict crowd size, Prairie Village Asbury UMC stopped to consider what the lockout means and who is affected.

“We have people who, throughout the week, come in the church office and need food,” said the Rev. Gayla Rupp, the church’s senior pastor. “A lot of times those are people living in their cars, so we have the kinds of things they could eat in their cars.”

Staff members decided to take the contents of the church’s food pantry and put it on shelves outside the main entrance. An accompanying sign says, “We love you, God loves you. Here’s food if you need it.”

Food available outside the door of Prairie Village Asbury UMC.

“The response has been pretty overwhelming,” Rupp said.

 

A church member quickly volunteered restock the shelves, she said. The move was a reminder of how many people the church serves, Rupp said.

“It’s clear to me there are people from all walks of life who are really hurting and are in need,” she said. “The least we can do is provide them something to eat when they sit down at the dinner table.”

Those taking the food are on the honor system, Rupp said. The rest of the food is behind the locked doors of the church entrance.

“It’s been very interesting, because I’ve seen people go and pick up food, and I’ve seen people stop and drop off food,” she said.

Prairie Village Asbury is very hunger-conscious, Rupp said, working in a food ministry for a backpack program at a nearby elementary school.

“It’s a very mission-focus church,” she said. “There’s no reason to have this food inside. It needs to be outside where people can access it.”




 


Food pantry delivery 

A monthly food pantry has been a longtime staple of Kansas’ Lecompton UMC, where 40 to 50 families would shop after getting donuts, coffee and juice and an impromptu church service, the Rev. Rob Ernest said. 

But restrictions on social distancing will change the next food pantry, from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Saturday, March 21, in the basement of the church. 

“We’re just changing the rules a little bit,” Ernest said. 

shopping list is available on the church’s Facebook page. Volunteers will take the list from the clients in their cars and return with the full orders. Delivery will be available as well. 

“We’ll do it all for them,” Ernest said. “It was a pretty proactive decision by our food pantry workers to do that.” 



 

CONGREGATIONAL CARE

'Together We Pray'

What started out as an impromptu online gathering at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic has grown into a worldwide prayer group, started by a Kansas pastor. 

Together We Pray” is a private Facebook group began by Hans Hazen, pastor of Neodesha UMC, in mid-April. 

“When it started, I had bad anxiety going on because I felt in the dark and confused,” Hazen said. “There has to be more people out there who could benefit from prayer. And Facebook, instead of airing all the hate and drama, why don’t we get prayer involved?” 

Nearly 300 people have signed up for the Facebook page, and they get together at 7 p.m. daily for prayer. Anywhere from 10 to 30 people will gather for each session. 

Hazen was ready to handle all of the duties himself, but within a few weeks started asking for volunteers.  

A few filtered in, but two stepped up to conduct the prayers and moderate the group: An Assembly of God church member from Fredonia and a Neodesha native, now living in Coffeyville, whom Hazen said he’s hoping will enter the ministry. A guitar player from Iola will sometimes contribute music. 

Hazen said the prayer time will greatly vary by who is leading the group. He will usually go five to 10 minutes, he said, including a short devotional and the Lord’s Prayer. Becky, the leader from Fredonia, is “pretty radical” and sometimes lasts 20 minutes, he said. 

“People really enjoy her enthusiasm,” he said. “I’m not that radical.” 

Hazen said he likes the interdenominational spirit of the sessions. 

“My belief is there may be a thousand roads to get to heaven, but there’s only one heaven,” he said. 

Varied people have made their prayer requests known. A Wichita media personality made a request on behalf of his daughter. Several requests have come from people in Africa. 

“I just never expected it to grow that fast, but in the midst of a crisis it was just something that people needed,” he said. “I never thought it would be this strong.” 

Hazen said he expects the group to continue once in-person worship begins again. His congregation in Neodesha is generally older, he said, but some younger people have shown interest in becoming a part of the Facebook group. 

“It’s something I like to do, and it gives me something to do every night that gets me focused with prayer,” he said. 

Hazen said he’s made some big plans in the past, including a religious concert and pizza party in the park, but didn’t have as much interest as this Facebook group has. 

“I’ve just learned that I can’t make my own decisions, and when God says something, even if sounds crazy, go for it and see what happens,” he said. 


Kechi’s got talent 

Just because you’re social distancing, wearing a mask in public, or stuck in self-isolation doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun. 

That was the theory of the Rev. Michelle Gowin, who encouraged an online talent show for members of Kechi UMC

The church had been worshipping via Zoom since March 29. 

“Our folks like being together, and they like the fellowship time. We haven’t been able to do that since the beginning of the pandemic,” Gowin said. “I thought we needed a break from the heaviness of everything that’s been going on.” 

Kechi is a community just north of Wichita known for its artisans, and “we have a church that really values the arts,” said Gowin, who begins her third year there in July. 

Gowin floated the idea of an online talent show in front of a couple of groups, and she found a positive, but not overly enthusiastic, response. 

“They were kind of skeptical, but I thought, ‘Let’s give it a try,’” she said. 

Performers were given the choice of a live or recorded presentation. 

Ten acts were on the bill, most of them explained by Gowin: 

“We had a young girl whose going into third grade, show us how to draw her favorite characters from a book. 

“A third-grader and one of our youth did a twirling dance routine. Another guy played the piano. 

“There are two sisters who are engaged, and did a dance — kind of flirtatious, but a really sweet dance — with their fiancés. 

“(Two female friends), one told bad jokes while the other one solved a Rubik’s Cube. That had us in stitches. They were so funny. 

“I sang a song I learned in third grade to add to the silliness of it all, and a lady told a story with a new spin on Humpty Dumpty. Another guy showed his woodworking abilities — amazing. It’s stunning what he can do with wood and a saw. I was blown away.” 

Gowin counts the night as a success. 

“We laughed so hard,” she said. “We just took a break from it all. It was great to come together as a community and great to just kick back together for a while. It was more fun than I could have imagined.” 

A second talent show is scheduled for September. 

“We will do this even when we open back up again,” Gowin said. “That’s the only thing that was missing, that would have made this absolutely perfect, if we could have been together to make this happen.” 

Gowin believes it added a new identity and fellowship to her congregation. 

“I think this will become a part of what we do every so often in our church,” she said. “It’s a great way to celebrate our community and get together and have fun.” 
 

Serving 'Coffee'

As with any new idea, the Rev. Lora Andrews was dreading the worst when an online “Coffee with the Pastor” was initiated at Lenexa St. Paul’s UMC

“What if nobody signs up?” she thought. 

But for more than a month, Andrews, the Rev. Sandra Cox and pastor Mike Marcus have had 30-minute, one-on-one Zoom conversations with church members and attendees. 

“We realized we wanted to have an ongoing chance for people to check in with us,” Andrews said. “It’s a chance to connect, pastoral-care-wise, with people.” 

Those attending the church sign up for time and are emailed a Zoom password. 

Rev. Lora Andrews talks with kids from Lenexa St. Paul's UMC.

In her first year at St. Paul’s, Andrews sees the “Coffee with the Pastor” as a success. Of the people she’s met with, only two were those she had previously spent time with. The rest were considering joining the church or were attracted by the thought of online worship. A young couple with a baby spent their time talking about the baptism ritual, she said. One woman had started watching online and “has already joined the choir Zoom,” an internet gathering for the singers in the church, Andrews said. 

“She had never found her way inside, and now she has,” Andrews said. “She now has a church home and didn’t before, so that’s really fun.” 

The person on the other side of the screen dictates what happens during that time, Andrews said, but sessions always close with a prayer. 

Reaching out to children, Andrews has spun off into “Cocoa with the Pastor,” telling the story of the Good Samaritan and segueing into neighboring – asking how their neighbors were good to them and vice versa, with groups of siblings. Andrews helped a 7-year-old girl celebrate her birthday when they both blew out candles, and prayed for another girl’s fish, named Rainbow. 

“I’m used to Facetiming my nephews, so I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve for video with kids,” Andrews said. 

Andrews said the Zoom “Coffees” will likely continue even after social distancing and gathering restrictions are lifted. 

“It eliminates some of the anxiety of meeting in person, the travel time to and from and the availability,” she said. “It’s been a real chance for connection at a time when we can’t. I think that’s so important.” 

Andrews said she also benefits from the sessions. 

“It’s been good for me, too, because I miss people, and it’s a reminder to me pastorally of why we’re doing the work and the redesign and the worship prep that looks difference,” she said. “It’s a reminder of who’s on the other side of the camera.” 
 


Holy Spirit Week

The school where she’s a substitute teacher had a virtual, homecoming-like “Spirit Week” recently, so children’s ministry director Darian Eddy thought she could do the same thing for Lawrence First UMC.

Holy Spirit Week” begins with a Palm Sunday celebration on Monday and continues through Good Friday.

Children are given suggestions about what to wear, an activity and a scavenger hunt challenge with photos to verify their accomplishments.

“I was just trying to think of ways to keep families doing things at home while the quarantine is going on,” said Eddy, who has been children’s ministry director since December and assistant director since the previous February.

All of the suggestions fell into place fairly quickly, Eddy said, except for one day.

“Tuesday was kind of tough, because it was a day that Jesus got pretty angry, and I didn’t know how to focus that with kiddos when you’re not there to explain it,” she said.

Eddy said she wanted to give the children an “Easter egg hunt feel” to the activities.

“They can have kind of an Easter egg hunt within the crazy as well,” she said.

Eddy, who has been hired to teach fifth grade at Perry-Lecompton schools this fall, said she hasn’t had much feedback yet about the “Holy Spirit Week.”

“There’s been a lot of overwhelmed parents, which is totally understandable,” she said. “I’m hoping we’ll start getting more pictures from them and getting them to do the activities.”
 


 

Reaching out to 'kiddos'

Allison Brewer had a hunch that the coronavirus pandemic might mean changes coming to herself and other parents at Topeka First UMC, where she is director of children’s discipleship, so she was prepared.

“I knew that I was going to have to be home full time with kiddos,” the mother of two said, “so I was trying to piece together what I could do when that broke.”

She used materials from Sparkhouse, the publisher whose curriculum was already in place for the church’s Sunday school and Wednesday night sessions, to create education and activity sheets for each family, which were mailed.

Brewer also created a private Facebook group for Topeka First families.

“I decided to keep that private, that way families could post video and pictures of their kiddos, and I can control who’s in the group,” she said.

Every night at 6, a different family hosts a Facebook Live session and shares what’s happening in their lives.

Brewer said content has ranged from jokes to a family ukulele concert.

“Those have been really special,” she said. “The kids have shared prayers, and almost every time they’re praying for COVID. It’s fascinating, because we don’t spend a lot of time talking about it, but a lot of them are thinking about it, for sure.”

She said families are appreciative of the connections.

“I think people miss seeing each other, and kids like to highlight what they’re doing in the house that week,” Brewer said.

After discovering that a church member was posting live craft videos online, Brewer asked her to piece together a video on how to make palm branches from construction paper.

Families are being asked to take videos of their children waving the palm branches, which will be compiled by Topeka First for the beginning of its Palm Sunday services online.

“We’ll have a palm processional after all,” she said.
 


Welcoming students

Wichita State University’s Campus Ministry Connect is reaching out to students left stranded in mid-semester when classes were cancelled.
Campus minister Melissa Hasty is leading an online book study of “Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young, and trying to have a daily presence on social media.

She’s also welcoming students to join her in a Zoom call — “A place where, if they’re sick of their family, they can see somebody else’s face,” Hasty said. “Just a place where they can talk with somebody that hasn’t been confined with them for a couple of weeks.”

On the first days back from what was to have been Wichita State’s spring break, she hasn’t had any takers yet but “I’m giving them the option if they need something like that, and that’s the most important part,” she said.

Hasty said the most common problem she’s heard is students having to finish out the school year online with inadequate internet access.
“It’s starting to frustrate them,” she said.

She’s also heard from international students — particularly one from Iran — who view our current problems such as empty grocery store shelves and searches for toilet paper as commonplace.

Hasty, in her second year as campus minister in conjunction with Wichita University UMC, said she wants to make herself available for students in need.

“I’m open to new ideas if I can figure out a way to implement them,” she said.
  


Online boom 

The Rev. Robert Johnson, pastor of Wichita Saint Mark UMC, sees the coronavirus as a blessing in disguise for his church. 

“What the coronavirus has really done is pave the way for me to push the social media and online presence of Saint Mark,” said the pastor of the largest African-American church in the conference. “Now that they are getting into the habit of it, my expectation is that we will continue it.” 

Rev. Robert Johnson

The Saint Mark plan is a nearly daily offering of livestream events, including not only the Sunday service, but Johnson’s weekly Bible study, online Bible trivia, a Friday night live music service, Sunday night “Gospel Jams” with a DJ encouraging requests and dancing online, a discussion for college-age members, and a weekly discussion of fitness, exercise and good health habits. 

“My expectation and prayer is that it continues afterwards,” he said of the restrictions. “I’ve been trying to move Saint Mark into the 21st century in terms of ministry and contact, and it’s been slow coming.” 

Saint Mark was one of the few churches in Wichita to keep its in-person Sunday services on March 15, Johnson said, and had a “great turnout.” 

“It was our seniors who said to keep going. They wanted an in-person service,” he said. 

A poll was taken among the older members, Johnson said, with more than three-fourths of them saying they did not want to discontinue in-person services. 

But the Saint Mark leadership team rejected the idea, Johnson said, saying, “We need to protect them, even if they don’t see the need to protect themselves.” 

Johnson, pastor at Saint Mark since mid-2016, said he understood the cancelation but respected the seniors’ attitude. 

“We have some seniors where Saint Mark is their life,” he said. “They would rather take the risk of attracting the virus than separating from their church.” 

Johnson and other staff members in the church are in the building four hours a day, calling the senior members to make contact.  

Today (March 27), in conjunction with the Greater Wichita Ministerial League, Johnson will deliver goods from the Kansas Food Bank to 30 of his elder members. 

“I will get a chance to deliver food and lay eyes on 30 of my seniors,” he said. “I’m excited about that.” 

Saint Mark had its first online-only service on March 22, and the feedback Johnson got was that the 40-minute service should be longer and the pastor should have more time to teach and preach. 

Johnson, who has also added a daily devotional on Facebook, said he sees it as new beginnings and outreach for the church. 

“We’re creating organic communities across social media. Hopefully this will lay the blueprint for it,” he said. “When this is over, people will get in the habit of it. I can say to them, ‘You don’t have to come to the building to come to church.’” 


Speaking to youth

Like many other staffs, the folks at El Dorado First UMC hunkered down to discuss what church looks like in a pandemic world.

But Valecia Scribner, director of discipleship and children’s ministry director, felt left out.

“At first our focus was on worship,” she said. “I don’t really have a role to play in that, so I immediately started thinking about how we could use some of these same ideas to help our students stay connected.”

Valecia Scribner

Even though she couldn’t be in the physical presence of the elementary and middle school students, she wanted to have some sort of daily reminder.

“Everything we do with our students is really relationship focused,” Scribner said. “I thought it was important for them to continue to see me in some way and maybe hear my voice.”

The result is a 6-8 minute daily Facebook video that she records, as well as emailing a one-page lesson plan to parents with enrichment activities. For younger students it includes crafts and games, and for older students it includes interaction with the Bible story.

Activities for older students have included writing letters to their faith partners, which are individuals or locations such as senior care centers that the students make connections with weekly during the last half of their Sunday school time.

Scribner hopes that students will post a picture of themselves in the Facebook comments.

“That way they can see each other and see what the other person is doing and look into their lives a little bit if we can’t meet in person,” she said.

The video is one of several ways El Dorado First has expanded since the pandemic. The Rev. Mik King, senior pastor, has started a daily “Midday with Mik” Facebook Live video.

Scribner, a parent of school-age children facing video learning for the rest of the semester, said she’s received notes of appreciation from parents.

“I’ve kind of gotten, ‘Whatever you do is helpful,’” she said.

 


Hymn studies

The Rev. Neil and the Rev. Bridget Gately had seen a slew of devotions from their colleagues in The United Methodist Church after the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person worship services.

They wanted to contribute something as well, Neil said, but with a different approach.

“What was something that we could do that could stand out and be different? We’re not very good on reinventing the wheel,” said Neil, who partners with his wife to serve Norfolk First, Stanton and Winside UMCs in Nebraska.

The result was taking their strong interests in hymnody and creating daily devotions that would focus on the music of the church.

“We wanted to be different, and we wanted to be authentic. Right now, that’s one of the most important things. Authenticity is going to be important for people to make a connection,” Neil said. “We’re authentically musical.”

The most recent revision of the United Methodist Hymnal came in 1989 when they were in seminary, and they studied all of the changes, Gately said. They both attended national launch events for the Worship and Song, and The Faith We Sing supplemental hymnals when they debuted.

Rev. Neil Gately

Neil is featured in the first three devotions and said he will eventually share the time with Bridget and with the church’s music director.

The first video shows Gately marrying hymn lyrics with other tunes in the hymnal to show their differences.

Gately said it was a challenge to think of new ideas on the fly.

“We’ve been doing ministry for 30 years, and we had five days’ notice to reinvent what ministry looks like,” he said.

The Norfolk church’s youth minister is conducting an online scavenger hunt for teenagers, he said, and the Christian education director is working on video presentations.

His church streamed its first graveside service in its first week, Gately said, and he anticipates livestreaming funerals.

“We’re just completely reinventing what we’ve always done,” he said.
 



 

Pushing podcasts

Austin Harris had been hoping to launch a podcast from Topeka First UMC for the past 6-12 months.

“Podcasts are a growing market; people seem to enjoy them,” Harris, director of worship and communications at the church, recalls telling church staff. “I enjoy them a lot, we should look into doing them.”

Other staff members were hesitant, Harris said, and he could totally relate.

“When you spend so much energy doing what you do, sometimes it’s hard to launch new things,” he said.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and “our job descriptions, everyone’s, just kind of changed overnight,” he said.

“When you find you can’t have church for eight weeks, and you can’t have the congregation in the building, it’s no longer taking up so much time,” he said.

Harris is host of two podcasts that are launching from Topeka First this month. Although ultimately designed for that church family, “we tried to craft it in a way that other people not related to our church also experiencing that separation could tap into it and get something out of it.”

“Methodists Behind the Madness,” which premiered March 19, is a weekly sit-down with both religious and civic leaders in the area to talk about “the convergence of life and faith,” Harris said. The first guest was the Rev. Jeff Clinger, Topeka First lead pastor, to talk about how “the church is reacting in real time to the consequences of the coronavirus,” Harris said.

Subsequent episodes will be released at 3 p.m. Tuesdays.

“Gospel to Go,” scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursdays, is narrative storytelling, he said. The first four episodes are devoted to “how the early Christian church responded to pandemics in the Roman empire, and how their very different response really launched the Christian movement globally,” he said.

Harris, who studied history at Washburn University, said he was looking forward to “find a way to put together meaningful material for folks really fits into that new structure.”

He said he hopes to continue both of the podcasts into the future after the coronavirus wave has passed.

“I hope they both have value moving forward, until we get to whatever it is the new normal looks like,” he said.

 

 

 


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