Last Tuesday, I visited a bible study at Plymouth First UMC in Plymouth, Iowa. It was dark by the time, I arrived, and I could barely see the little United Methodist Church sign with its arrow assuring me that, yes, my directions did say to take a right two blocks north of the stop sign. I drove up to a large, rectangular brick building on a quiet, dark street corner.
I could see lights on in the basement of the church, and I knew I was going to be meeting people downstairs, so I felt confident I had found the right place. There was caution tape and recent excavation telling me that the church is undergoing some sort of improvement. Before I had gotten around the corner, a man in a Mustang rolled down his window and said, “Colleen.” I had just met Jerry Avise-Rouse, pastor of the Shell Rock Valley Parish. Plymouth First UMC is one of the four churches he serves in the parish.
We walked in to the church together, but I entered the fellowship hall alone. There were 8 people seated at a round table in the middle of the room. As I came in, someone caught my eye, and I was invited over. The group broke open, grabbed a chair, and made room for me. It was done with such ease, I assumed they were expecting me. As I sat down, the woman to my left introduced herself and the naming worked its way clockwise around the table.
Meanwhile, there was a bustle of activity in the kitchen as the group welcomed Jerry, refilled coffee cups, made sure everyone was comfortable and continued with catching up on the events of their lives since Sunday. I was at the church’s weekly Bible Study. Suddenly, Bibles came out of bags, flew open on the table, the attention of the group turned to Jerry and it became clear that the time had come to get to the business of studying Scripture. And that was when I discovered that the group had not been expecting me at all. Pastor Avise-Rouse said something to the effect: “You can listen to me ramble on about Isaiah, or you could listen to what Colleen McRoberts, the Leadership Development Minister of Social Justice and Mission, has to say.”
And, all eyes in the room were on me. Luckily, the group had already made me feel like I was one of them, so I jumped right in. “Tell me about justice and mission,” I said. They did.
Ingathering, Hawkeye Harvest Food Pantry, service at the North Iowa Community Kitchen, visits to the ill and isolated with Communion and devotions, the planting of a community garden with produce being given to those without food, and being sold to those with a little bit of extra cash to help raise funds for mission trips.
Sock It to You Sunday, where socks gathered for the Salvation Army are launched at the pastor as part of worship, bell ringing for the Salvation Army, and the Soup Supper Auction held on the first Sunday of December. Mission trips to Women at the Well UMC and Minot, North Dakota, Christmas Eve in the Barn, and this year’s first time attempt at a community-wide Thanksgiving Dinner.
They said some of this ministry got started after a group study of the book Simple Abundance.
Jerry shared that after first arriving at Plymouth UMC, he and Wendy (Wendy Johannesen, Associate Pastor of the Shell Rock Valley Parish) heard the mantra “We are dying!” so much, they decided to preach about it. They launched a series of sermons: “So you’re dying. Now what?”
A woman named Deb said, “This is what changed us from the dying to the living: there is a positive support group.There used to be a negative support group. Now there is a positive support group.”
The members started sharing stories about how isolated and small they felt while they continued to worship in the upstairs Sanctuary. They were afraid to try too much change because people had left the church when the pews were shifted so that they faced inward and people could see one another’s faces. Now, the church meets in the Fellowship Hall every Sunday, around tables like the one we were seated around that night.
Something that was done out of necessity in the winter months to keep heating bills manageable has become the way that Plymouth First UMC worships. Apparently, the fellowship goodies are set up before church starts and people eat before, during, and after worship. There was lots of laughter and teasing back and forth about the noisy, clamorous, extended fellowship time that has become worship. Perhaps seeing the questions in my eyes, I was assured that when people got up for coffee during “the sermon” that the atmosphere is actually quite subdued and respectful.
“So, weekly worship here is something like a Love Feast, then? “ I ventured. There were nods and smiles all around.
Occasionally, the pianist, a Seventh Day Adventist, cannot make it to lead music, so the church is learning how to sing songs unaccompanied. There is no elevator to the fellowship hall, so they are limited as to who can come, but they have decided that they are not going to spend their “dying” breaths trying to get an old building up to code. Instead, they wear t-shirts which say “The church has left the building,” as they place flyers inviting people to the community-wide Thanksgiving dinner in doorjambs around Plymouth.
“Obviously, you see a need for food in your community. What drives that need?” I asked.
“Inequity.” “Transportation.” “Quality employment.” “Childcare.” “Being a bedroom community.”
ME: “What are the barriers, for the church, and for the wider community, to really addressing some of these larger issues?”
-We don’t know people because they work and play elsewhere. They only come to Plymouth to sleep. You don’t even see children playing or adults out working on their yards during the day.
-Labeling and Association (people have reputations to protect)
-Reprisals: local employers will push back on people who “make noise.”
-What difference can I make? It is too big.
-Too many different issues in the United Methodist Church. I wish we could all get behind something together.
ME: “How do the mission trips and ministries you have all shared connect to your faith?”
-Taking action helps strengthen faith when talking about it gets one down.
-Real connection to one another is built around projects and trips together.
I wish I could share the laughter and play that were alive in that room. By the end of the evening, there were about 12 of us around the table. The conversation had moved from the ministries the church was doing to ministries it was thinking about beginning, as people discussed the closing of local restaurants, schools,and post offices. How they could fill the gaps by providing breakfast one Saturday a month or by opening a local restaurant of their own. One woman shared that they just try things, and if they don’t work, that’s OK. They will just try something different. They “fail forward,” and they are loving it.
Plymouth First United Methodist Church has a weekly attendance around 23 people, and they would love it if you would stop by some Sunday morning. I guarantee that if you do so, you won’t feel like a stranger or an alien. You will feel like a long-time friend.