By Brett Hetherington*
Connecting with one another amidst the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for all of us the past nine months. Virtual vacation bible school, Facebook live family dinners, and neighborhood caravans are a few of the many ways that East Ohio Conference congregations and faith communities are creatively reaching out in love to one another and to the community. Carrollton First United Methodist Church (Ohio Valley District) is sharing the love of Christ through porch parties.
“Everyone calls me PK,” shared the church’s lead pastor, the Rev. Kimberly Arbaugh. “I was trying to come up with something that would rhyme with PK and porch parties just rolled really nicely, and it flowed. And you can’t have a party without party favors!”
Porch parties started in May when the weather started to get nicer. Arbaugh reasoned that since in-person gatherings at the church building were suspended and she could not visit people as she normally would, there had to be a way that she could invest into the members of her congregation. “During the pandemic people are down. They are not able to have visitors over to their houses and many are unable to spend time with family or friends,” said Arbaugh. “They need that bright spot, that ray of sunshine in their life.”
Arbaugh took the idea of a party and this knowledge that people need contact and put together a plan. The church posted invitations to sign up for porch parties on their social media feed, in their e-mail blast, and even announced it on Sunday mornings. People in the congregation caught on to the idea and soon Arbaugh found herself busy with parties.
“At first I was doing about three parties a week. I told people that if they provide the backyard, I will provide the party favors,” Arbaugh said.
She ordered favors such as bubbles and noisemakers and assembled individual packets – all sanitized and sealed – and carried these with her to the homes she visited. One more element Arbaugh included in her planning was to bring along individual prepackaged communion kits.
“We had not shared communion since Easter, and people were really missing that sacrament,” shared Arbaugh. “This was a way for them to still feel connected, and it was important to walk through the communion liturgy with them together.” Arbaugh carried a laminated card with the communion liturgy, stressing that it was important to share the whole experience together. “It really helped people to be able to go through the prayer of confession and prayer of thanksgiving together. It meant a lot more than just simply sharing ‘here is the body and the blood.’”
Most parties have taken place in the afternoon or evening when people are done with their work for the day, and Arbaugh would always be accompanied by her plastic minion figure as an added piece of flair for the festivities.
“We sit in driveways, front porches, back porches, patios, garages when it is raining a little and we get to have real conversation together,” shared Arbaugh. She stated that the parties are always careful to maintain social distancing, and after spending an average of 15 to 25 minutes in conversation together the party would transition into the communion service. “It wasn’t just bringing communion to the people, but often it was bringing smiles to them as well.”
I asked Arbaugh if she could share a couple of parties that have left an impact throughout this season, and two came quickly to mind.
“The first party couple we had was with a couple who had no children. She was working from home, and he was working as a well-driller. It was really kind of cool that she told her boss, ‘I’m taking a long lunch today my pastor’s coming we’re having a porch party.’ It was that important to her to stay connected to her church.”
The second party Arbaugh shared about was an intergenerational affair.
“One other party was at a family’s house. There were six children, some of whom would be returning to college soon and one son was turning 21 in a couple days. He would be doing some traveling for his birthday, and the Mom felt it was important for the kids to share communion together before they all left for travel plans and for college. This was more than just ‘we miss our church’ but because the parents felt it was important for their children’s spiritual growth. Even though they are young adults, the parents wanted to make sure they had that element of communion together. And there were three generations there – grandfather, parents, college kids – three generations sharing communion together.”
Some of the people have been able to return to the church building for in-person worship services, which has slowed the frequency of the parties. “We are down to around one party a week now. Some people have not felt comfortable coming back just yet, so I have gotten to visit with them for more parties,” said Arbaugh.
Porch Parties are not going away this fall Arbaugh told me. “People really seemed to enjoy it. They felt they were still connected with the church, like they were connecting with me in a very safe and socially distant kind of way.” She acknowledges that the colder weather and the oncoming winter months will give the church a challenge in how these parties can continue while maintaining the safety of the people, and yet Arbaugh is excited at what this new season will bring. She encourages other churches to explore how they might host porch parties of their own.
“We will keep this going. It is an easy, economical thing to do and anyone can do it.”
Even if you don‘t have a large plastic minion.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.