Colleen Holt

contributing writer

A muddy yard can be a hindrance for many reasons. In one case, however, it was the impetus for an Arkansas church to construct a wonderful new outdoor stage.

During the height of the Covid pandemic, Vilonia United Methodist Church began offering outdoor worship services, using borrowed portable flatbed trailers for a stage.

“The outdoor stage became a vision for our church because we really enjoyed being able to gather for worship outdoors during the pandemic. It was a safe way for us to gather and a new way to experience worship,” said Rev. Lauren DeLano, pastor of Vilonia United Methodist Church.

The vision for a permanent stage began to form when one Sunday morning, church pianist Jeremy Carson watched the flatbed trailer tires sink into the mud. His first thought was, “Spring is going to be really tough.”

Out of this came a vision of building a permanent structure, and Pastor Lauren’s sermon about setting a table for others put an extra bit of substance to the idea. “This is a prime example of how the holy spirit works,” he said.

Soon, the worship team brought the vision to the Finance Committee, Trustees and Administrative Council, and “the church really came together” to support the idea.

“The amazing thing about this stage is that it was designed and built completely by members of the Vilonia UMC congregation,” said Pastor Lauren. “The worship team came up with this vision, talked to people in our congregation who had construction experience and knowledge and received approval and funding from our Trustees and Administrative Council.”

Money to build the stage came from different music foundation funds and from leftover tornado settlement funds. Perhaps another act of the holy spirit at work is that the stage is sitting just about where the altar was in the old Sanctuary building. “It just happened that way,” Jeremy said.

“What we have now is a really beautiful structure that is multi-functional and provides us a second worship area,” said Jeremy, who is a teacher and coach in the Cabot School District. “It was vision on one part and action on the other.”

On the Saturday before Easter of 2021, a group of 15 people gathered to build the platform for the stage and a set of stairs. “On Easter Sunday we were able to worship from this brand new outdoor stage,” said Pastor Lauren. “In September we were able to add a roof and complete our vision for the stage.”

Church member Clint Johnson led the team of builders, using his past experience building wheelchair ramps at Ozark Mission Project to come up with a design. A member of the church for about 15 years, Clint works as a biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He said he volunteered for about 10 years with OMP – in fact, Pastor Lauren was on the college staff during Clint’s first OMP experience.

One would think that building a stage would take specialized construction experience. However, Clint said, “a stage is just a big, flat wheelchair ramp.” His team included people of all ages – from his 6-year-old son “driving screws,” to folks up into their 70s.

Building the stage took about four days total, he said. The stage itself was built in one day, with finishing touches on all parts of the project coming a few days after initial construction. Designing the roof was his father-in-law, Randy Wiedmayer, who has experience as a construction and drafting teacher.

Now that the stage is complete, the church has not only had outdoor worship, but it has been used for Fall Festival, Blessing of the Animals, and other church-wide events. “We hope to invite the community to use this stage in the future. We host the Vilonia Farmers’ Market in the parking lot and have begun to work with them for ideas on how they can utilize our stage to bring in more traffic. We’re dreaming about city-wide movie nights and other events we can host and invite our congregation to be a part of,” said Pastor Lauren.

“This stage is a symbol of the way God moved in new ways for our congregation during the pandemic. We hope it reminds the city of Vilonia that church happens not just in our building but on our lawn, too. And, we want everyone to feel welcome to join us for these outdoor opportunities, trusting that God will use them to help us make new connections in our community!”