Congregation Exceeds Missions Challenge, so it’s Pastor Kisses a Pig

By Rick Wolcott*

In her 2017 Episcopal Address, Bishop Tracy S. Malone challenged and encouraged every East Ohio Conference church – regardless of size, location or demographic makeup – to commit to engage in at least one new, bold, courageous ministry that would share the love of Christ, expand the church’s reach beyond its four walls, deepen the church’s relationship with its community, and engage in justice and advocacy.

Pastor Pat Schneider took the bishop’s words to heart.

Last fall the part-time local pastor serving Vickery UMC (Firelands District) challenged the church’s 12-15 weekly worshippers to raise $300 for missions.  The money would be donated to Teen Challenge of the Firelands, which uses Christian faith-based principles to free women from drug and alcohol addiction. Schneider set a deadline by which the money needed to be raised.  As extra incentive, she promised the congregation that if it raised the money she would allow one of the church’s members to throw a pie in her face during worship on mission Sunday.

The congregation raised the money, and Schneider kept her promise.

This year, she asked the congregation to raise $325 for Liberty Center of Sandusky County, which provides temporary shelter and other services for families in need.  She told the congregation that if it raised the money she would kiss a pig.

October 14 was mission Sunday at Vickery UMC, with Schneider’s sermon grounded in Matthew 25: 31-47.  At the conclusion of her message, she announced that the congregation had exceeded its goal.  Liberty Center Executive Director Margaret Weisz was called forward and presented with a check for $382.

Pastor receives monies raised for missions.

“I am happy and proud that you accepted the challenge,” Schneider told the congregation.  “Today you have helped those in need and because of that, you have helped Jesus.”

Weisz thanked the congregation for its generosity.

“This is such an amazing gift.  It’s everybody doing what they can that helps us do what we can for those in need,” she said before sharing information about how Liberty Center helps its clients get back on their feet.

Then the congregation headed to the parking lot.  There, Schneider met the pig that had been transported to the church by a community member with family ties to Vickery UMC.

After a brief time of getting acquainted, Schneider kissed the pig – and the congregation applauded.

Pastor kisses a piglet

“I appreciate that our pastor challenges us to be the church,” said Tony Factor.

Lay Leader Paul Parkhurst added, “We’re a small church but we are an active church that does what it can to help others.”

How has your church responded to Bishop Malone’s challenge?  Let me know at wolcott@eocumc.com.

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.

The Urban Mission: Listening with Compassion, Serving with Love

By Rick Wolcott*

“We at the Urban Mission feel a deep passion to connect with the community,” says Kelly Jeffers, director of New Initiatives.

The community the Mission serves has seen its share of hard times.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the population of Steubenville in 2017 was 18,003.  That’s a significant drop from the 30,771 people who called the city home during the 1970 census, taken not long before the city and its neighbors along the Ohio River fell on hard times when the steel industry waned and thousands of people across the Ohio Valley lost their jobs.

“Steubenville is another of Ohio’s left-behind cities:  we can see the grand buildings left behind from the era when industry boomed; we can see the bones of a thriving and populated city; we can see the people who were left behind to try to make things work when all of that left them.  The Urban Mission really sees those people, and sees them as beloved of God who want the dignity of helping to provide for themselves,” said the Rev. Abby Auman, superintendent of the neighboring Mahoning Valley District.

“We are on a journey,” Cynthia Lytle explained to Bishop Tracy S. Malone, Auman, and the rest of the East Ohio Conference Cabinet when they spent a day at the Urban Mission.

Lytle, the Urban Mission program director and community developer, shared that the Mission’s ministry team has been guided this year by Joshua 3:5, which states “Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.’”

She said the verse “continues to provide us with courage to move forward, ready to do His work and His will. But most importantly this scripture reminds us that God wants to do amazing things through us.”

For more than 50 years, Urban Mission ministries have provided assistance to the people of the Ohio Valley in numerous ways.

The staff partners with volunteers, churches, local agencies, and the community to provide those in need with hunger services, homeless services, neighborhood community development services, worship services, medical services, holiday services, and the JOSHUA work mission program.

Rev. Ashley Steele speaks before meal,to those seated at the tables

“It takes all of us working together as a team to minister to the community,” said Urban Mission Ministries Executive Director the Rev. Ashley Steele.

The ministries provide help now while offering life skills that produce hope for the future.

“I thank God that he chose me to be in ministry here,” said the Rev. Toni Hubbard, who is in her fifth year leading the Mission Rejoice worship service on Saturday night.  “The Urban Mission is a lighthouse.  Upon this corner we show and share the love and the compassion that God has for all mankind.”

Hubbard began her work with the Mission 20 years ago as a cook in the Unity Kitchen, which, every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, provides hot meals served in a café setting to anyone who walks through the door.

During their visit, Cabinet members served and ate with community members in the Unity Kitchen, and visited the Urban Mission’s many ministry sites in Steubenville.

“I want us to learn and celebrate together how our various mission centers are living into the East Ohio Conference vision and to help create partnerships between these ministries and the local church, and I want to encourage and provide opportunities for us as a Cabinet team to engage in mission work together,” Malone said.

In September 2016, during her first month as resident bishop of the Conference, Malone and the Cabinet visited Flat Rock Homes in the Firelands District.  Last year they spent the day at the Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland in the North Coast District.

“Sharing the meal with folks gracious enough to share bits of their lives and their heart with me was filling,” said the Rev. Gail Angel, superintendent of the Southern Hills District.

“A lasting impression on me was when my tablemate said, ‘the mission has us recite the Lord’s Prayer and now I know it all but the last two lines.’  So I encouraged her to take a picture of the last two lines of the prayer that is painted on the wall so that she can learn it quicker.  She got up and took the picture.  Wow!” said Tuscarawas District Superintendent the Rev. Benita Rollins.

Praying in circle

Prior to the meal, diners asked for prayers.

“I pray that I can find a place for me to live, hopefully with my cat,” one woman said.

“I ask for prayers for good news at the doctor’s office,” said a man.

“I pray for my family,” another man said.

“I pray that I can find a job,” a woman added.

Jeffers is leading the Urban Mission’s initiative to answer the prayers of those who are out of work.  No job means no money, which means no opportunity of breaking free from poverty.

“Jobs for Life is a biblically-based program that helps to connect people who are unemployed and underemployed to their God-given purpose of working,” she said of a program being offered at the Urban Mission.  “Jobs for Life believes the church is uniquely positioned to help with work readiness first, before providing other forms of assistance, so that people can be equipped to provide for themselves.”

Steele explained that at the end of the two-month program participants are surrounded with a group of people that helps them find jobs, matching their skill sets and their gifts.

“We see possibilities where others see problems,” she said.

It’s that attitude that led Steele to the vacant plaza at the corner of North Seventh and North Street, three and a half blocks from the Urban Mission.

Cabinet inside vacant building

The Mission signed a lease-to-own contract with the building’s owner earlier this year.  Unused for 12 years, the former a Save-a-lot store will soon be home to many of the Urban Mission’s community outreach ministries that are currently housed in separate buildings.

“The new building will give us more room but most importantly it will provide learning opportunities for volunteers coming in to learn how to work and cook in a kitchen, to learn how to enhance their computer skills, and learn how to work with people one on one,” said Linda Costello, Urban Mission Hunger Services director.

She oversees the Client Choice Pantry that is open every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and also distributes food to seniors on the fourth Tuesday of every month.  Families are assigned designated weeks, based on their last name, to come to the pantry for groceries.  Last year 2,381 families living at or below the poverty level were served by the pantry.

Some of the items available in the pantry and some of those served in the Unity Kitchen are grown in the Mission’s Unity Garden, now in its 11th year.

In front of building wall painted with cross and encouragement Justice Slappy speaking, while raking

“It’s about feeding people, first, but it’s also about healing people spiritually, mentally, and physically,” said Urban Mission Unity Gardener Justice Slappy.  “People can come off the street whenever they want and eat.”

The peppers, tomatoes, basil, black raspberries, strawberries, corn, beans, onions, squash, cantaloupe, and other fruits and vegetables grown in the garden are nourished by compost made from food waste and by rain water that is collected in barrels.

Slappy told the bishop and the Cabinet, “It’s all about asking, ‘How can we sustain as a community?’”

“Throughout the day I was humbled and inspired by the passion and faith of the staff and volunteers of the mission!  They do more than help others, they truly care that others have hope,” Snode shared.

Community is at the heart of everything the Urban Mission does.

When the owner of the 100 year-old City Rescue Mission announced plans to retire, the Urban Mission drafted a plan to expand its ministries and ensure that the homeless shelter and thrift store would continue to be available to those in need.

Client Engagement Director Jodie Feezle said that in the first three months the Urban Mission operated the shelter it served more people than were housed there all of last year.  A major reason for the increase in occupancy is that the Urban Mission made the shelter low barrier, meaning individuals do not need identification and do not need to be drug-free to stay.

Since changing the Mission’s shelter to low barrier “unsheltered people in the county dropped by 77%,” Feezle said.  Those seeking shelter can stay for 30 days, and depending on the work they do at the shelter while they are there they can seek a two-week extension.

“The goal is for people to leave having a place to stay and some type of job so that they have money and hopefully won’t need to use a shelter again,” Steele said.  “In years past we have had at least a success rate of 80% of folks not necessarily needing to utilize the services again and that’s due to the relationships that we continually cultivate with landlords and local housing authorities.”

“I love how the hospitality of low barrier is pervasive; how anyone can come for lunch at the Unity Kitchen and those who come can also be the servers; how their garden is not locked up so anyone can come for food; and how they recognize that those who need a place to stay may not have documents,” Auman said.

“What impresses me most about Urban Mission ministry is the deep spirituality of the staff. It is obvious that this is not just a job to these folks; every member of the staff has a clear sense of calling to their work. They light up when they talk about it; and they share the love of Jesus in the way they do their mission,” said Three Rivers District Superintendent the Rev. Dr. Brad Call.

In 2017 the Urban Mission provided food to 2,381 families, clothing to 1,561 people, back-to-school backpacks to more than 1,400 students, Christmas toys to 1,605 children, and needed repairs to 30 homes in the area.  None of that would have been possible without the generosity of East Ohio Conference pastors, congregations and faith communities, and people from across the state of Ohio and beyond, who donated $701,831 worth of food, furniture, clothing, etc., and volunteered 16,180 hours of their time.

“The effort and witness of the Urban Mission shines bright and clear,” said the Rev. Bruce Hitchcock, superintendent of the Ohio Valley District and past director (2002-2011) of the Urban Mission.  “Together, we can follow Jesus, serve as Jesus served, and love as Christ loves.”

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Sharing the Living Water of the Gospel

By Rev. Lee Ann Dunlap*

The day in Rio Bravo, Mexico was hot, and we were sweltering even in the shade at the elementary school. But the mother and her little ones waited patiently in the cement courtyard for their turn to see our medical mission team that she hoped would help her family. Though not a mom myself, I could recognize the distress of the infant screaming in her arms as she tried to comfort it.  Too hot for a baby, even I knew, but what could be done? Our devotional that morning had challenged us to look for miracles, and right then I was praying for one.

Mother, children waiting in the heat

After a moment I approached the mother, and with a feeble attempt at Spanish and hand motions I asked her permission to put the baby’s blanket over its head while I soaked it using my water bottle.  I wasn’t expecting it to help much, but that’s all I could come up with.  To my great surprise the baby quieted almost instantly, turned to suckle and went to sleep.  So maybe we weren’t walking on water, but I needed no interpreter to translate the look of relief and gratitude on Mama’s face.

I turned my attention back to our work and they turned theirs back to their waiting.  But it wasn’t long before a shy, sweet-faced little girl approached me.  Her words came faster and more numerous than my brain could translate, but I caught enough to understand her plea: “tiene” and “agua”.  Do I have (or could she have) water.    We’d had an Igloo cooler of It somewhere, provided for the team at lunch, but where it was, and how much water there was, I had no clue; and we were still too busy for me to go searching.

Ok.  So in our culture it is frowned upon to drink from the cup of a total stranger, or expect a stranger to drink from your water bottle.  But it’s not like these folks carry Dixie cups with them everywhere.  Still, the day was hot, and she was thirsty, and it just wasn’t in me to deny her when there sat beside me a half-filled water bottle still chilled from the morning.  Good protocol or not, with a shrug I handed it to her and went on with the task at hand.  She promptly took it to share with her siblings, and, to my surprise, she returned minutes later to give it back.  It wasn’t empty.  Thirsty as they were, they’d left most of it for me.

“No, no”, I said, handing it back.  “Es por tu.”  Did I say that right?  I must have – she skipped away with it.

Young girl having fune with hoola-hoop in the parkThat challenge met, the flood gates opened.  One after another the children (who had earlier been rather wary of me) came forward.  “Agua?  Agua?” They asked.  Into my head popped Jesus’ words about giving a cup of cold water to “the least of these,” — and what happens to those who don’t.  But what could I do? No agua, and now not even a bottle!  Ok, Lord.  This one’s on you.  Miracle needed – or at least a good plan.

Fortunately our stream of clients had slowed to a trickle so I had some time to think.  Our team leader, Chad, was loading some things into the van when I approached.  There in back was the Igloo cooler – not water, but tea, along with a half dozen Styrofoam cups.  That would do. “Better to empty it here than haul it back,” I suggested.  He lugged it back to the courtyard for me and soon we were set to go.

As you might surmise, I now faced a new challenge.  We had more “te” and more thirsty people than we had cups. With the help of my Kindle Spanish medical dictionary, I learned the Spanish word for cup – “vaso” (think “vase” or “vessel”).   So now when the thirsty little niños approached, I coaxed them to talk to me, even though I knew what they wanted.  “Te?” they would ask, one after another.

“Si, pero necessita un vaso.  No tengo nada,” I’d reply.  (“Yes, but you need a cup; I have none”)

The day was hot and they were thirsty.  Somehow, despite my faulty grammar, they understood. They shared their cups and the tea with one another in a way I doubt many Americans would. Thirst satisfied, problem solved; I moved on to the next challenge without much thought.

It was only much later as I lay in bed that I began to fully consider what had happened that day.  How frustrated I felt that those little ones, (and the adults too for that matter) were genuinely thirsty in the mid-day heat, and I knew we had that big cooler nearly filled with what they needed; yet we had no “vasos” – no cups – with which to share the life-restoring liquid. That gap had tormented me.

Although I tried to fall asleep my thoughts returned to Jesus and the Women at the Well (John 4).  On that day it was Jesus who thirsted in the heat of the day.  It was he, the Son of God, who pleaded, “Give me a drink.”  She, a woman and a Samaritan, was also thirsty – for so much more than she knew – for “living water” – for connection with one who would love her authentically.  Jesus offered, but she did not grasp at first.

“Sir, you have no vessel with which to draw.”  Indeed he did not – no cup with which the water could be shared.  Her words evoked from me a stream of tears.  In my mind’s eye I saw again those thirsty children and the adults who waited with them in hope we could provide something – medicine, vitamins, something to ease the pain in their lives, to know someone cares.  A thousand other faces came to mind – not just Mexican children, but those in my own community and nation;  Teens on the television screen pleading for a stop to school shootings, victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking begging to be rescued,  alcoholics, and addicts desperately eyeing their next “fix.”  The faces flooded my imagination and I wept.  I wept because I know where the water can be found that will cool their thirst and heal their wounds.  I cried because I knew my ache was also his.

“Where are the “vasos?“ I asked; or he asked me, I know not which.  How can the water be shared without a cup? We in the Church know where the water can be found, so why do so many around us perish with thirst?  Where are the vessels?

I thought again of the Woman at the Well.  In the end it was she who ran to tell the village about the stranger who had changed her life.  Because of her they came to him, listened to him, and invited him to stay until they came to believe.  She, herself, became the vessel that he needed, the means of sharing Life, just as maybe that day I had been; and maybe this day, you are, too.

Who are the thirsty people around you?  We live surrounded by a multitude wasting away because no one has shared with them the Living Water of the Gospel.  Jesus is the Fountain of Living Water – those who thirst for him are many, will you be the cup he needs?

*Rev. Lee Ann Dunlap is in her 5th year serving as pastor to McConnelsville Grace, McKendree, and Pisgah UMCs in the Southern Hills District.