When the Rev. Michael Tomson-DeGreeff began at First United Methodist Church in Wamego six years ago, he was told the Kansas community loved its fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’” he recalled.
“I grew up in St. Louis watching the fireworks at The Arch, which were amazing. And I lived in Boston for six years, and the fireworks in Boston were amazing,” Tomson-DeGreff said. “So, I thought, ‘How good could this be?’
“But it blew me away. It was way better,” he added. “How was this even possible?”
The fireworks display in Wamego, he soon discovered, was bigger than the displays in St. Louis, Boston, New York and just about every other major metropolis.
But the fireworks were just part of the Fourth of July celebration in Wamego, which includes a parade and a food stand by First UMC, known for its pork burgers and homemade pie.
The food raises about $8,000, Tomson-DeGreeff said, which is distributed to veterans and military organizations, including the Wounded Warrior Project. This will be the 27th year for First UMC to serve the pork burgers, which are free to active military, veterans and their families.
The church also hosts a concert, with a combination of patriotic and Christian music, that includes soloists, small groups and bands representing the church. Ron Wilson, a cowboy poet frequently featured on NPR, is also a part of the program.
“The whole thing is unbelievable, really,” Tomson-DeGreeff said. “It’s pretty much all church members and people related to the church.”
First UMC becomes so involved, he said, because the church sees itself as, literally and figuratively, a center of the Wamego community.
“We see our church as kind of a community center. Our building is centrally located right downtown,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in the fact that our building is here to serve the community.”
In some way or another, Tomson-DeGreeff said, about 100 church members are involved in the celebration on the Fourth.
“We have so much fun and fellowship doing it, and then we raise all this money and give it away. We thank our veterans,” he said. “It’s a great day, very positive. It strengthens our church, our community and our families.”
Wamego’s 4,400 residents are joined by 60,000-plus visitors for the Fourth of July, Tomson-DeGreeff said.
A similar groundswell takes place in Seward, Nebraska, where the city of 6,000 draws about 40,000 visitors, said the Rev. Robert Perry, pastor of Seward UMC.
The day begins at 7:30 a.m., when church members begin distributing coffee and doughnuts.
“They see us as offering hospitality outside of the four walls of the church,” Perry said.
The church’s praise band sings for the opening service, as it has done for the past 10 years, and members of the local ministerial association take turns giving the sermon each year — this year is Perry’s turn.
“I am opening up with the fact that I firmly believe in the separation of church and state and that theocracies are a bad idea. But a democracy and religion, church and state, are not mutually exclusive ideas,” Perry said. “Therefore, getting that off the table, I concentrate on how, even in 1776, this was not a done deal. There was disagreement, compromises to be made. There was still work to be done, even when we agreed on a way forward.
“Maybe that should be the motto for our society and our church,” he added.
Many members of the Seward church are involved in the day’s activities, Perry said, even though it’s not under the auspices of the church.
“Everybody knows these are the good Methodists going out in the community in action,” Perry said.
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