By Rev. Andy Blacksher, Faithbridge UMC
Two words really sum up the past year at Faithbridge UMC: determination and creativity. Last March we found ourselves, as did many congregations, in a place that tested our ability to learn, communicate, listen, discern, pivot and dream.
Last March, on Friday 13th, my family was supposed to be enjoying a trip to "grandma and grandpa's house." Instead, I spent most of that day on the phone and email with my church board trying to figure out what we would be doing about Sunday worship in light of the presidential declaration of a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By Easter we had started 100% pre-recorded worship services, something that I'd thought to be heretical until I heard myself say the words, "Let's give pre-recorded services a try." Before I knew it, I was preaching from State Parks and other beautiful locations around the Lake area via video. I started by simply setting my cell phone on a tripod, but as the months carried on it made sense to purchase "real camera equipment."
By late April our Bible studies had made the decision to learn Zoom to continue meeting together. Zoom and social media opened up a whole new world of possibilities that we'd never imagined for our congregation. In fact, we had a lady from the Netherlands who joined one of our Bible studies because she found our church through a congregation member's YouTube vlog. Our Lay Leader also started a weekly Zoom prayer meeting for the whole church. Those opportunities for community became the glue that held us together and put new wind in our sails.
In the fall we began to understand that the need for physical assistance in our area was going to be great over the winter. A large number of the population in the Lake community rely on the seasonal tourism industry for their primary employment. We have an annual mission tradition that we call the "Food Truck" ministry, where a huge truck load of food arrives at Faithbridge and volunteers sort items into boxes that can be easily given away to households in need. That generally requires about 100 volunteers standing side-by-side in a supply chain to make it work. So, we flipped the whole project on its head and asked people to pick up a box from Faithbridge, fill it with food from a list we gave them and bring it back to distribute. Together, we filled more than 75 boxes for families in the Lake area.
In August, my wife and I both came down with COVID, and it really did a number on me. I know that for some it "isn't that bad." That was not my experience! Through my experience with COVID, I got to know the head person at the Camden County Heath Department. She told me that morale at the health department and area hospitals was much worse than we had even been told. At about the same time, two members of our congregation, who happen to be sisters, heard about a 5K that you could organize at your church to raise money to thank frontline workers in your local community. It was called "Hope Isn't Canceled." The virtual 5K could be run or walked, and it was something that could be done with whomever, whenever and wherever you wanted to do it. We had several dozens of groups and individuals participate from all over the state. As a result, we sent meals of encouragement and hope to more than 400 doctors, nurses and administrators at our local hospital.
Our version of COVID Christmas was pretty special in its own right. We have a church choir who typically sing only once or twice a year. My favorite is when they sing their Christmas Cantata - it's always joyful and exciting. In 2020 a member of our staff approached me about the possibility of doing a virtual Christmas Cantata. The choir members rehearsed and recorded their own parts in their homes and then another person from the congregation mixed the audio and videos of each choir member to create something truly beautiful. I got goosebumps when they sang "Mary Did You Know" acapella! Like many other churches, we did not hold in-person worship on Christmas Eve. Instead, we sent every household a gift from the church to be opened on Christmas Eve. It was lovingly filled with items that referred back to my Advent sermons including cookie mix, coffee, an ornament and candles to help people participate in singing "Silent Night" by candlelight in their own homes.
The pandemic also helped us form a new partnership with the Central Missouri Foster & Adoptive Care Association. There are far more children than I realized all over our state who live in foster, adoptive and kinship families. And as stressful as life can be for the children, it is often even more stressful for the adults providing care. Due to concerns about the pandemic, the Central Missouri Foster & Adoptive Care Association had to discontinue several of their programs that provide a reprieve for the adoptive and foster parents. Instead, they tried to show care and love to these parents by providing an Easter meal for each family to serve at their home with an Easter ham and all of the fixings. Faithbridge stepped up and donated more than $1,300 worth of food to say thank you to 105 families who are giving of themselves to serve these children. Now we are looking for other ways to partner with this great organization in coming years!
On Easter Sunday we officially began welcoming people for in-person worship again. When I look back on this past year I am amazed at the pace of change, innovation and learning. But we were determined to continue loving God and our neighbor at all times. We haven't gotten it all right. There have been bumps along the way, and I've made plenty of mistakes. But through it all God prevails.
I'll leave you with my greatest hope. My greatest hope is that determination and creativity don't end here! I know there are 300 more stories from around the Conference about how congregations have adapted and changed to meet the needs of rapidly changing times. And it seems like the immediate needs that we were all responding to, of COVID, are winding down. I know that I have learned that the congregation that I am honored to serve and I are both infinitely more determined and creative than I could have imagined. But there are so many more needs that lie before us and problems to solve that will require the same level of determination and creativity in order to meet them, especially reaching new generations for Christ. Will we have the courage to show the same determination and creativity as we face these other challenges that we face?
"I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus." Philippians 1:6