United Methodists’ help for others counters gloom and doom predictions of break-up.
Most news coverage of The United Methodist Church these days paints a gloomy picture of a doomed denomination. While the institutional turmoil can’t be denied, United Methodists in pew and pulpit are still bringing hope and help to their communities.
Longtime church members say that helping others is in “United Methodist DNA.” Historians sometimes cite the prayer and outreach efforts of John Wesley and the first Methodists among England’s poor and dispossessed for helping the country avoid the kind of violent revolution that afflicted France and other European countries. Although scholars now say the quote may be apocryphal, Methodists still resonate to the words attributed to their movement’s founder: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
Today, United Methodists’ most effective community response may well be disaster relief and recovery. Local churches often are the first line of relief in times of crisis, especially with the growing incidence of weather-related disasters intensified by the global climate crisis. Congregations regularly open their buildings to house disaster victims, providing food, clothing and other personal supplies. Members in hundreds of churches gather to create kits of cleaning supplies to help with mop-up, and hygiene kits consisting of toiletries and towels. The kits then are distributed through a central aid agency, the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
There’s an element of caring for God’s creation in United Methodists’ disaster response as well. Clergywoman Jenny Phillips, senior technical adviser for environmental sustainability for the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, recently wrote about disaster volunteers who shipped, built and delivered solar energy systems to storm-stricken communities in the wake of Hurricane Ian. Through a serendipity of timing, UMCOR already had scheduled a two-day Build Power workshop in Florida in early October. Working with UMCOR, the Florida Annual (regional) Conference and Footprint Project, volunteers from Florida and North Carolina learned how to build, operate and maintain solar generators.
In addition, Phillips wrote: “After Ian hit Florida, Trish Warren, Florida Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, requested help getting power and supplies to places that needed it right away. North Georgia Conference volunteers shipped truckloads of flood buckets, tarps, plywood and cleaning supplies, as well as solar panels donated by Cherry Street Energy in Atlanta, Georgia. Footprint Project and UMCOR worked with Warren to deliver solar microgrids on loan from Tesla to places without energy. North Carolina volunteers, led by North Carolina director of Disaster Ministries Al Miller, met up with Footprint operations manager Will Heegaard ahead of the workshop to set up microgrids in the hard-hit Fort Meyers area. This is truly the United Methodist-UMCOR connection working at its best.”
United Methodist disaster recovery has a reputation for being “early in, last out.” Dan Curran, a communications consultant for Global Ministries, recently wrote: “With this year’s storms, UMCOR’s legacy … means that United Methodists will be there to accompany recovering communities for years to come.” Individuals and congregations participate in this long-term recovery by replenishing relief supplies through local disaster response coordinators and by sending supplies directly to regional supply depots.
Local disaster recovery also benefits from United Methodists.
In rural Atchison County, Kan., churches have joined in a fundraiser to aid the rebuilding of 110-year-old Effingham Union Church, severely damaged in June 2021 by straight-line winds. Camp Creek UMC, Coal Creek UMC, Lancaster UMC and New Covenant UMC have joined with Catholic, Lutheran and Christian churches for an Oct. 23 fundraising event with traditional activities such as a freewill barbecue lunch and a bake sale.
Community observances frequently draw United Methodist support. Members of Grace United Methodist Church in Washington, Ohio, gathered cookies, crackers and other snacks to bless the firefighters at Washington Fire Department at the start of Fire Prevention Week Oct. 16.
United Methodists also are good at organizing nonprofit services. For example, Market Street UMC in Winchester, Va., is a driving force behind Family Promise Northern Shenandoah Valley, a new outreach that “wants to provide assistance to ‘any combination of parent and child,'” among homeless populations, according to an article in the Winchester Star. Market Street UMC held an “open house” Oct. 19 to introduce itself as the “local ministry hub” for the service and solicit community support.
Sometimes United Methodists’ social outreach backing runs into controversy.
First United Methodist Church in Newberg, Ore., organized an Oct. 9 prayer walk that drew 70 people in support of a transitional housing project, Peace Trail Village, according to an article in the Newberg Graphic. Megan Stewart wrote: “The village — consisting of eight 300-square-foot cottages, a community space and a laundry facility — will be built on North Valley Friends Church property and provide temporary housing for houseless people in the community. … Although Peace Trail Village is modeled after safe and successful transitional housing programs elsewhere, it sparked controversy earlier this year due to its proximity to Veritas Christian School. Concerned for student safety, several community members formed the Kids Not Camps initiative to prevent its construction.”
Stewart quoted Casey Banks, pastor of First UMC: “The primary purpose of the Prayer Walk was to demonstrate support for North Valley Friends’ vision of serving a vulnerable population and to ask God’s blessing on the project’s development because efforts to care for the poor always face adversity.”
Besides supporting Peace Trail Village, Newberg First UMC is looking for nearby property to establish a multi-use building with residential space, following a model used by Habitat for Humanity.
United Methodists’ concern for others runs beyond U.S. congregations. Among the stories recently published by UM News:
- Kenyan church helps drought-stricken community by Gad Maida, telling how Tumaini United Methodist Church in Garsen, Kenya, brought food and water to residents along the country’s coast.
- Church helps Ukrainian refugees start business by Joey Butler, in which the United Methodist Church in Romania aided two Ukrainian women to begin a sewing business at a hotel housing refugees from the war in Ukraine.
- South Africans march against gender-based violence by Alvin Tiri Makunike, reporting on a demonstration in Gugulethu, South Africa, in which women church members in the South Africa Conference protested violence against women. The march was organized in conjunction with the United Methodist Men’s annual gathering at Bishop Abel Muzorewa UMC in Cape Town.
Given these and countless other unsung examples of local outreach, political turmoil within the denomination doesn’t appear likely to destroy United Methodists’ devotion to helping their communities whenever help is needed.
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the worldwide United Methodist Church at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.