By Steve Doyal
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Nov. 7, 2016) -- Bookwalter United Methodist is a church in the Knoxville District with an average Sunday morning attendance of 128. Like many of our churches, the congregation has struggled to emerge from the recent economic downturn.
Our immediate community is still also struggling as confirmed by MissionInsite statistics showing poverty levels above the state average. I had only been appointed to Bookwalter UMC a few months in 2015 when the idea of a fall festival was proposed. It was too late to have one that year, so we looked to 2016. A young lady by the name of Kana Wilhoit agreed to plan the event. I told Kana I liked the idea, but did not want to merely do the same thing so many other churches do around the same time. I wanted us to find a unique way to serve the community while raising our visibility.
Kana took it to heart to try something new, but was having trouble determining what that might be. Then a key inspiration came to her. In her words:
I was frustrated and having a rotten day. I threw my hands up and walked outside to a sunny, quiet spot in the middle of my parent’s garden. Already exhausted, I dropped down to my knees and prayed. I mean really prayed. The type of prayer where all the sights and sounds around you disappear. I had a quiet conversation about needing the knowledge to make this festival idea into something real and unique. I knew I wanted to create a day of fun and help our community.
I’m not sure how long I knelt in the garden talking to God but when I opened my eyes, the sun was blinding. As I walked back up to the house, I felt happier, more at ease. I loaded everyone in the car and realized I had left the car keys inside. I simply walked back inside as if it was my first trip … not my 5th.
That is when it happened. I picked up the remote to turn off the TV and instead accidentally blasted the speakers. I went to turn the volume down and heard an ad for the American Career Center and Tennessee Department of Workforce and Labor. My body froze, but my mind started going a million miles a second. It was all coming together like a puzzle and my heart filled with excitement.
I e-mailed every department of the American Career Center. I wrote them about a vision to help the community while providing a free day of fun. The response was unbelievable. Their resources and contacts were a God Send. They were my first of many answered prayers. Our fall festival was now the Fresh Start Festival and Job Fair.
That was when things began to come together. When we started, we could not find any sponsors. Now there were businesses contacting us wanting to be a part.
The next key element of the festival was that we wanted everything to be absolutely free. This was in contrast to how Bookwalter had organized fall festivals in the past. It had previously been more of a fundraiser where craft items and so forth were sold. Instead, we applied for and received a Change for Children grant from the Holston Conference. This was used to purchase Bibles to give to kids. Once the idea began to crystallize, we also had other businesses willing to sponsor the event.
Early discouragements soon became affirmations we were on the right track. We paid a sizable deposit to reserve several inflatable bounce houses. Then they went out of business a mere two months before the event. Kana contacted seven companies that rent inflatable attractions and received seven rejections. October is the busiest month of the year for such things. As Kana’s anxiety grew, one of her little girls pointed out a picture of a choo-choo train on her phone. It was an inflatable obstacle course from a company that she had not even tried to contact. When she called and explained what the situation was, they offered even more items for less money.
Another key development was gaining the participation of our next-door neighbor, Reunion Baptist Church. We had initially just hoped for their cooperation to use some space between us as well as parking. Their partnership as active participants was a blessing in itself and just the kind of message we wanted to send the community.
Christus Victor Lutheran Church also offered the use of their parking lot. There is also a gentleman whose home lies between the Lutheran church and the other two churches. We asked his permission for participants to walk through his property on the day of the festival. He was genuinely excited to be a part and thankful to be asked. He provided stakes to mark off the path and now also plans to contribute fresh produce from his garden for Bookwalter’s ongoing food ministry.
Along the way, I began to sense in my heart this was truly a God-thing. We started with $50 and ended with over $10,000. We started with just six Bookwalter members and ended with full church support. We had only a few volunteers to begin with, but ended up with hundreds. I was especially pleased to see the racial diversity of our neighborhood reflected at our church on festival day. We hope this is opening doors to some other ministry opportunities as well. There is already the possibility we may host a 10-week class for Hispanic parents to help their children in school.
I have often preached to my congregations to dream big, have faith and trust God. This was a case where I had to practice what I preach. I had serious reservations about the scale of the event that Kana had in mind. I feared great disappointment. She and I confided in each other there is a thin line between “epic” and “epic fail.” But bathing this effort in prayer and listening to God’s guidance truly led us to something that was clearly meaningful and well received by our neighbors.
In the beginning, we had a hard time overcoming preconceived ideas about what the fall festival could and would be. Even within Bookwalter. I had been recently studying the history of the church and ran across a neat story from an older lady in the church. She described how when she was young, she remembered how the church would open its doors and windows during worship, and they could hear them singing several blocks away. She said her family would join in the song even when they could not be there. This immediately struck a chord with me because of the United Methodist theme of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” This was further underscored when I found out the name of the program for Hispanic parents was named “Abriendo Puertos” which translates as “Opening Doors.”
We are praying now that our community can hear us lifting up God’s song of love, and we hope they sing along as well.
The Rev. Steve Doyal is pastor at Bookwalter United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.