Because everyone matters: St. John initiates campaign to connect with its community
By Melanie Tucker | (email@example.com)
As a congregation, St. John United Methodist Church in Maryville has sent disciples into Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and they support the work of others in places like the Philippines and Latvia.
But in early 2012, St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Shelton, asked his members to pray diligently for another place they need to emphasize — their own community.
So for several weeks, they did just that. What has resulted is the establishment of some new ministries — like a once-per-month community breakfast — and the continuation of several others like the Hispanic outreach. Shelton also visits Rockford Elementary School weekly and the church provides a closet where school officials can obtain various items their students are doing without. Every Sunday as congregation members arrive to worship, under their arms they carry rolls of paper towels, diapers and toilet tissue to be handed out. This, Shelton said, is also an act of worship.
Looking within our neighborhoods
“When I first came here, one of the things I wanted the church to do is embrace Christ’s mission for our church, which is to go and make disciples — to reveal Christ to the local community, the region community and the world,” Shelton said.
Shelton said the community in and around St. John UMC has changed so much over the past few years. The Hispanic population has grown. There are more single parent families. More people rent their homes than before. And families are more transient, moving where the job opportunities can be found.
One of the ministries that has been newly developed is FACTS, which stands for Families and Children, Teachers and Schools. In addition to helping the staff serve their students’ basic needs (toothpaste, toothbrushes, socks, underwear, etc.), St. John also has two outreach ministers who go into the school and help translate for the Hispanic parents. Shelton said when he first arrived at St. John, he learned there were 41 Hispanic students at Rockford and no one on staff who spoke Spanish.
“The children can speak English but the parents can’t,” Shelton said. “We bring Danny (Castillo) and Karen Neff in once per month to meet with parents and they help translate.”
That outreach program has been going for months. On Sunday, June 3, an additional program that seeks to connect St. John with its community will kick off. It’s the first free community breakfast, to be served from 9 to 10 a.m. on June 3. All are welcome, and free household goods will be provided to those in need. Shelton said this will start off as a monthly event, with hopes to turn it into a weekly fellowship.
The day before, on June 2, St. John will have a garage sale. Hours are 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. It’s not about making any money, Shelton explained. It’s about establishing meaningful relationships.
Finding common ground
“We wanted to go beyond just giving food and offering these things,” the pastor said. “We want to engage them in real life and let them know we care. This is about offering the person of Jesus in a very real way.”
St. John has even changed some of the things about its worship. Shelton doesn’t preach in suit and tie; congregants then feel comfortable in khakis and jeans. The language in the bulletin is more reader friendly, and the Hispanic ministry that has been going for a few years is bringing in new families. Having both Hispanic and Anglo worship services going on at the same time in the same building has been a positive experience, the pastor said.
Castillo said he has overseen St. John’s Hispanic ministry for three years and was instrumental in getting one off the ground in Philadelphia, just down the road in Loudon County. He also incorporates music into his services. He preaches on Sunday mornings and also leads a Bible study on Wednesdays.
Both Castillo and Shelton believe the best way to learn about one another is to come together and worship. Both congregations will combine to have one service on occasion and plan other events throughout the year.
“I believe the best way to destroy the stereotypes you have heard all your life about other ethnic groups is to get together,” Shelton said. “What happens is you find out you are pretty much the same. That’s what you discover when you live life together and interact.”
Points of contact
Decades ago, people attended church within their own community, but that isn’t so anymore. There weren’t a lot of members at St. John who lived within a few miles of the church when Shelton first came. That is changing. He said churches don’t have to reach out to their immediate surroundings to survive and thrive, but St. John feels a strong pull to do so.
“I feel very strongly that God placed this church in this community at this time,” he said. “This is the area He wants us to emphasize.”
The garage sale, monthly breakfasts and other ministries are simply natural points of contact, Shelton pointed out. He and his members now walk the streets in their close neighborhoods, inviting residents to special events and celebrations. A community fair this summer is being talked about.
There have also been investments made in the church building itself. New handicap-accessible bathrooms and a playground have been added. New air conditioning was installed. Updates in the sanctuary have taken place. New carpet will be installed. All of this, Shelton explained, is showing this community that St. John wants to be here.
Shelton and his congregation have no idea how many people will show up for the first community breakfast on June 3. They will certainly be staffed to handle a crowd. After he preached a sermon focused on the idea of community service, 29 signed up to cook that day. At some point, Shelton said he would love to establish teams so the breakfasts can be held every week.
Mission work, this church believes, is important. That includes foreign soil and right here in our own backyards.
“We believe that to Christ, everyone matters,” Shelton said. “It doesn’t matter who they are or what they have done. What color, what language, what nationality or socioeconomic states. None of that matters. That is the message of the cross. If that is the case, then everyone needs to matter to us also.”