By Brett Hetherington*
East Ohio Conference congregations and faith communities are changing the ways that they are in ministry to others because of restrictions put in place to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. Needing to reach a population increasingly living in isolation, church leaders have moved on from what was and have prioritized what can be. For Westbrook Park UMC (Tuscarawas District), that has meant turning to vehicles to spread the love of Christ one family at a time.
Drive-thru Food Pantry
Social distancing and no longer being able to gather in groups made food pantries reexamine how best to serve their clients.
“We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to do it because there would be so many people in the building,” said Debora Pellegrino of the church’s long-standing ministry of being a distribution center for the Akron-Canton Foodbank.
Pellegrino, who serves as the administrator of the program at Westbrook Park, shared that after several conversations about the predicament with the health department and much brainstorming church leadership came up with a plan to help its longtime ministry partner.
Families and individuals who receive food from the food bank were invited to a drive-thru food pantry. They parked in lines in the church parking lot and stayed in their vehicles as volunteers from the church brought the goods to them. That idea solved one problem, but it didn’t address another one: most of the regular volunteers for the food ministry are of an age that places them at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.
“Normally we have 20 to 25 volunteers, but this time we only had 13,” Pellegrino shared, adding that four of the volunteers were youth who were happy to lend their energy and strength to the good cause.
Recipients were very grateful, with most expressing their thanks that the church members were putting themselves at risk to provide food for their families. Pellegrino and her volunteers took the opportunity to share the real reason they serve.
“We tell them every month this is not from us, it’s Jesus. We want them to know God loves them, we are just His hands and feet. We are not doing anything spectacular.”
“Westbrook Park UMC helped 88 households representing 322 people in our community,” the Rev. Joel Adkins posted on Facebook. “2 lanes were formed in our drive, registration was done at quite a distance, Akron Canton Food bank arranged so no personal contact was needed for registration … clients opened their trunks and volunteers placed prepackaged boxes into their trunks.”
After the last car had pulled out and each family had been blessed with food and a smile, Pellegrino and her volunteers passed along this message to share across The United Methodist Church connection:
“It was only by the grace of God that this was all able to happen. We could see that His hand was all over this. Try and treat people the way you would want to be treated if you were in a position of needing help and assistance God will guide you.”
After finding a way to continue serving its food ministry recipients, the leadership at Westbrook Park found a creative way for the congregation to feel a sense of community while also honoring social distancing by offering a Drive-In Sunday morning service.
Congregants pulled into the parking lot and tuned their vehicle’s radio to a particular low-band AM frequency on which they were able to hear the livestream of the worship service, complete with Adkins’ message preached from the sidewalk, guided prayer, music, and a modified passing of the peace.
“Turn to the car on your right and wave,” Adkins instructed after welcoming everyone, followed by encouraging people to use their headlights and horns during this time of greeting.
Church members who were greeting as cars arrived commented not only on the weather cooperating, but on the idea of this new way for the church to worship. “This might turn out to be something really cool. Some people just have a hard time getting their kids up in the morning. Here nobody cares what you look like, if your kids have food on their face, it’s like a drive-in movie” shared one greeter. Another gentleman chimed in that he would not be surprised if the church decided to try this method of worship again when the weather warms up more regularly.
The church was able to engage newer technology during the service as well, collecting specific prayer requests via the church Facebook page. Adkins was able to share some of those requests with the congregation at the close of service.
Many church members expressed gratitude for the morning. They were encouraged and strengthened not just by being able to hear a sermon, or even knowing they were being prayed for and with, but by being able to see each other, and to smile and wave at people they know and love. They were able to be physically present with their community and still be safe in the midst of crisis.
The words Adkins shared at the close of his sermon reflect the message Westbrook Park UMC has been sending during the COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting us all.
“I hope we don’t get back to normal. I hope that we don’t get back to the selfishness that says this is all about us instead of being all about Jesus. I hope that we don’t get back to normal where we think it’s about the color of our pew pads or the carpet on our floors, or whatever it is that we thought it was about. Normal kept us lukewarm. This is an opportunity for the church to shine like no other time.”
Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with stories of how your congregation or faith community is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to your community in creative ways now, during this time of COVID-19 pandemic, and into the future.
*Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.