Wiggins UMC closes to make way for resurrection

By Omar Rikabi Special Contributor FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—Lea Criss opens the box on the big cake and sets it on the table. She stares at the words frosted around two images of the church: “Wiggins Memorial United Methodist Church. 1941-2014.” Through tears, the 18-year member of the church and president of the United Methodist Women whispers that God is finally answering their prayers to fill the halls with young people again. “We’ve been praying for this for years, but we didn’t think it would happen like this,” she said. “It’s so sad to be losing our church.” On Sunday, April 27, Wiggins Memorial UMC Fayetteville celebrated its final worship service. In 1941, the young congregation then known as “Bethel Methodist Church” moved into a building still under construction. Before the building was completed in 1945, a teenaged Doris McConnell and her mother passed by the church, and immediately decided to join. “My mother drove by and saw all the construction,” she said. “She must have seen something we could do to help out. She was the one who picked the church.” McConnell has served as the church secretary for almost 40 years, a job she started by volunteering to make the bulletins for Sunday morning. “This place has been a second home,” she said. “This is like losing a best friend and having a funeral, but also celebrating a resurrection.” Decline and decision Over the decades, Wiggins has seen a great decline in membership. A once vibrant and overflowing congregation, the church has fallen to about 30 members. As many in the congregation grew older, few young families joined. The church worked hard to serve the poor and hungry on their side of Fayetteville, but resources have been harder and harder to come by. On April 27, there is only one small Sunday school class meeting in an otherwise empty and quiet hallway of classrooms. But that’s about to change. Last year, the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church proposed that Wiggins become a satellite ministry of Central UMC Fayetteville. After much prayer and discussion, the church leadership voted to close and transfer the property and assets to Central. Central will fund and oversee a renovation to the sanctuary, and this fall will reopen it as “Genesis Church.” Central also will provide staff, including the Rev. Jody Farrell, who will serve as pastor. During construction, Farrell and his team will hold worship services in the Wiggins fellowship hall. That the idea was presented right before Christmas, and the church closed right after Easter, has made these two holy seasons harder on some. Despite the decline, the remaining members of Wiggins are proud of this place where their salvation stories unfolded. But with the new renovation, many also have new hope. “I’m already seeing people we haven’t seen in years. This is going to be a good day,” says Mona Holt. She proudly declares that she is 82 and has been a member since the seventh grade. This morning she serves as a greeter, and is all smiles and hugs as people who have not been to this church in years file in for one last time. As she talks, Holt is visibly excited about the future: “This fall is going to be a wonderful new beginning.” But not everyone is as excited. Doris McConnell is hopeful, but hesitant. “My goal is to try [Genesis Church] and see if I like it. There are a lot of things to get mad at, but it will be okay if we have the right attitude.” Final gathering The Revs. Lyn Poplin and Bud Reeves serve Communion to those attending the final worship service of Wiggins Memorial UMC Fayetteville.As the service prepares to start, there is a buzz in the sanctuary. Over a hundred people talk, hug, re-connect and re-orient themselves to this place. “Didn’t these pews used to be blue?” one person asks. In the background, the prelude music is the hymn of the prophet Isaiah’s question when God asked who would go forward, which this morning seems fitting: “Here I am, Lord/Is it I, Lord?… I will go Lord/If you lead me/I will hold your people in my heart.” After the call to worship comes the passing of the peace, and a ritual that usually takes 30 seconds goes on for almost 10 minutes. More hugs, more tears, more reconnecting, more laughing. As the service continues, the current pastor, the Rev. Lyn Poplin, reads a history of the church, followed by a brief video message from Bishop Mueller. Then the Rev. Bud Reeves, superintendent of the Northwest District, delivers the message: “Dying to Live.” Reeves encourages the congregation to see what they are doing as a faithful sacrifice: “It’s a courageous step to give up control of the building to make disciples of Jesus Christ,” he preaches. “This is a precious place with lots of memories. You’re giving that up. It’s a sacrifice.” He goes on to declare, “We are an Easter people. We celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and we anticipate the resurrection of Wiggins.” After receiving Holy Communion, worshippers surround the altar at Wiggins Memorial UMC Fayetteville. The April 27 worship service marked the final gathering of that congregation.But the focal point of today’s service is Holy Communion. A final time for this church body, who is sacrificing what they hold dear, to share in the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for the sake of the world. One by one, they make their way up to receive the body and blood of Christ. After being served by Poplin and Reeves, many make their way to the altar to pray there one last time. And just like that, after 73 years, Wiggins Memorial United Methodist Church has worshipped together for the last time. But one thing remains: There is a catered lunch downstairs in the fellowship hall, and the cake. As people line up to eat, they stop and look at it. Some even take a picture. But no one seems eager to cut into it just yet. The Rev. Rikabi is a provisional elder in the North Texas Conference, where he will be appointed in July to First UMC Heath.