March 03, 2017
Ask someone in mid-Missouri to name a town in the southeast corner of the state, and the answer you’ll probably get is Cape Girardeau. That answer would probably get a chuckle out of someone in Pemiscot County, where you’re still in Missouri, but could be 100 miles south of Cape Girardeau. “I’ve enjoyed living in this area,” Rev. Todd Holman said. “It is very southern.”
Holman is pastor of Cooter UMC and Wesley Memorial UMC in Steele, the United Methodist Churches in the southeast corner of Missouri’s boot heel. Holman grew up in Central Missouri, at Dixon. He was on the radio before he was out of high school and made a career on the air for nearly three decades.
When living in Springfield, he was approached by Rev. Mark Statler. He asked him to be part of a new church plant, Sunrise, which merged to become Asbury. He followed his call to ministry as a lay pastor, taking a “Christmas” appointment that got extended (as Christmas appointments tend to do) at Conway and Niangua. He became a licensed local pastor, completed his course of study, and served churches in Bois D’Arc, Lockwood and West Plains.
When he got from a call from his District Superintendent to serve Cooter and Wesley Memorial, he had never been to either community. He’s now in his fifth year at the churches.
“I’ve found there are good people wherever you go,” Holman said. Holman lives in the Steele parsonage. Cooter has worship at 9 a.m., Steele has worship at 11 a.m.. Both churches have Sunday school at 10 a.m. They are about five miles apart and similar in size, averaging around 40 in attendance.
Cooter has a more blended style of worship while Steele is a bit more traditional. For the blended worship, Holman calls in his family. His wife, Rebecca, sings and plays the guitar; his 12-year-old son, Ezra, plays bass guitar, his eight-year-old daughter, Eliza, occasionally plays tambourine and Holman plays drums.
June Keen started attending church at Cooter United Methodist Church when she was a teenager. She’s 78 now. But it wasn’t always her church home. “I’m like a bad penny – I keep coming back,” she said. She was married at Cooter, but her husband’s job took them to Illinois. He died when she was only 24 years old. When she married the second time, the wedding was at Wesley Memorial at Steele.
“The heat wasn’t on at Cooter. At that time we only heated it on Sunday mornings,” she said.
That wouldn’t be the case anymore. Last year Cooter did a sanctuary remodel and added insulation after discovering there was none in the ceiling or the walls.
“We’re saving a lot on heating and cooling now,” Holman said.
Keen’s second husband was in the military, and the family moved to Italy, and then to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
“I wasn’t bashful. Wherever God would move me, I’d go out and make new friends,” Keen said.
There was still a sense of home the remained in the boot heel of Missouri, though. After the second husband died in 1971, she moved back to Cooter. “I wanted to be closer to family,” she said. The desire for connection also eventually brought her back to Cooter UMC.
“I’ve been part of big churches before, but I really like the homeyness of smaller churches,” she said.
Attendance at Cooter varies from the mid-30s to mid-50s. Many people in the community are employed at Nucor Steel in Blytheville, Arkansas, but agriculture and related industries are still the bread and bread for much of the community. Cotton, corn and soybeans harvest follow one right after the other in the fall.
“We get slim on men at harvest time, so the women run the church then,” Keen said.
But everyone comes out for the fall harvest dinner. And the children’s Christmas program packs the house with the extended family members of the children involved.
“We are filled to capacity for that,” Keen said.
The church also has an active Vacation Bible School program in the summer, and has recently been reinvigorating its youth ministry. On Sunday mornings it has a full range of Sunday school classes. “There is something here for the entire family,” Keen said.
Keen is encouraged to see young families, and recognizes that reaching them isn’t easy. She’s seen culture shifts over time that contribute to the overall decline in church participation.
“Too many people now are too into self, with a ‘What’s in it for me?’ attitude. It’s a shame,” Keen said. “You have to reach out to children while they are still little. There are too many opportunities to get lost in a worldly way of thinking.”
About a decade ago, Scott Spence, a member of Wesley Memorial in Steele, started Faith Fest, an event to bring together all churches in the community. Both Steele and Cooter participate, as do most of the churches in the community. They set up informational/promotional booths and have some entertainment and a revival service. Spence has passed away, but the festival continues strong.
“There’s always a good turnout, and brings together the black and white churches on common ground,” Holman said.
Like Cooter, Wesley Memorial has also remained faithful to maintaining its facilities. The church has recently remodeled its kitchen and fellowship hall, and put on a new roof. You can follow Cooter and Wesley Memorial on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bootheelmethodists.