The Rev. Sharon Wright was ecstatic when she saw the announcement from Bishop Dindy Taylor in her inbox last week.
“Read your email!” she texted the Rev. David Jackson, her co-pastor at Emory United Methodist Church.
After months of uncertainty about how to resume both school and in-person worship amid rising coronavirus cases, many churches in Holston Conference have been busy the last two weeks reaching out to students and teachers and preparing to offer outdoor worship.
For Wright, the Aug. 10 email from Bishop Taylor permitting outdoor worship for churches that meet specific safety requirements couldn’t have come at a better time.
“This is a game changer for us,” Wright said. As interim chaplain at Emory & Henry College, she said the best time to engage students at Emory United Methodist Church is to snag them with free breakfast and worship on their first Sunday on campus.
A limited number of students, mostly freshman, will be moving into dorms at Emory & Henry on Friday, Aug. 14, Wright said. After Bishop Taylor’s announcement, Wright and Jackson scrambled to arrange outdoor worship “safely under the shade tree behind the chapel" this Sunday, Aug. 16.
“For us, the thought of being a church on campus and not being able to reach out to the students in person was a little depressing,” Wright said. “We now have a shot at reaching the first-year students.”
Kimberly Davis said that she and other members at First United Methodist Church have been working all week to get ready for outdoor worship on Sunday, Aug. 16, in Bulls Gap, Tennessee. The congregation had to stop worshipping in person when COVID-19 cases spiked in the Mountain View District in early August.
“We plan to use our pavilion,” Davis said. “We are pressure washing, setting our benches apart, disinfecting, basically using the same rules as in the sanctuary.”
After the unexpected death of their pastor, the Rev. Wayne Bromberg, on June 26, the congregation has carried on and is in need of fellowship, Davis said. “We are very excited to be able to see each other again.”
Other churches also reported they are preparing to worship outside this Sunday. On Holston Conference's Facebook page, the Rev. Mark Huffine said Clintwood United Methodist Church in Virginia will be worshipping together for the first time since March. "Excited!" he said.
In Knoxville, the Rev. Samuel Ward said St. Mark United Methodist Church will be meeting under its oak tree this Sunday, "six feet away from each other, of course."
Centenary United Methodist Church in Erwin, Tennessee, has no immediate plans to return to in-person worship, but secretary Jessica Casey says the church recently acted on an unexpected opportunity to help local students.
Centenary was unable to offer a “backpack carnival” to the community as it has in recent years, Casey explained. When she received a Facebook message from a 15-year-old boy asking about the carnival, Casey did some checking with neighbors and learned the boy is the oldest of seven children.
“He plays the role of the parent and does jobs in town to take care of them,” she said.
Casey quickly gathered donations from church members and provided backpacks, school supplies, new clothing, and a gift card to buy food and hygiene products for the boy and his family. “He was so happy and appreciative,” she said.
Other congregations also went out of their way to help students and teachers, even as the pandemic has changed the way school is done for most communities.
“Our church has given Chromebook technology fees for 10 students at four different schools so that students without money can keep their Chromebook at home and do their schoolwork,” said the Rev. Richard Rudesill, pastor at Tuckaleechee United Methodist Church in Townsend, Tennessee. “We have also provided backpack tags with prayer tags.”
Patti Cathey Keck reports that Christ United Methodist Church prepared “blessing bags” for 40 teachers in Knoxville, Tennessee. The bags included post-it notes, pens, hand sanitizers, candles, a flashlight, water bottles, tea bags, candy, bath bombs, homemade cookies and granola, and a handwritten prayer card.
“The bags were prayed over last Sunday by our pastor,” Keck said. “We are also sending cookie trays to two elementary schools ... We just want our teachers to know they are loved and will be in our prayers as they start this difficult school year.”
Also in Knoxville, Cokesbury United Methodist Church is sending handwritten thank-you notes to all 8,000 teachers and staff of Knox County schools. “We are also encouraging families to pray at their local schools on Aug. 16,” said Ashley Cross, director of communications.
In Alcoa, Tennessee, First United Methodist Church served breakfast to all teachers in four city schools, said Johnny Walker, visitation director. On Aug. 11, the United Methodist Women of Church Street United Methodist Church delivered 365 handmade masks for students of Green Magnet Science and Math Academy in Knoxville.
On August 24, members of Middlebrook Pike United Methodist are lining Knoxville streets around two neighborhood schools to pray as students are arriving, said Jan Johnson Mobley.
In Dayton, Tennessee, Rebecca Brown felt frustrated when she returned to work as a schoolteacher a couple of weeks ago, while her church was not permitted to offer in-person worship due to a high number of COVID-19 cases in the area.
“We can literally go to any public place in Rhea County, except a United Methodist church. That’s truly heartbreaking,” said Brown.
Brown described how she had participated in “extensive revisions of our schedules and procedures” to care for the needs of some 700 middle-school students in both onsite and virtual learning situations.
“The stress level has been unparalleled, as many vocations have been experiencing,” she said.
This Sunday, following Bishop Taylor’s announcement, the teacher will be happy to gather with her family and friends for outdoor worship at First United Methodist Church in Dayton.
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.