Feeding from the Depths

Feeding from the Depths

By Rev. Eva Englert-Jessen

Program Coordinator for the Center for Calling and Christian Leadership, Hendrix College

I’m not sure I’d be a minister today if it weren’t for church potlucks. There is something about the gelatinous salads, mac and cheese, quirky cupboard serving bowls and potluck conversation that nourishes the soul. I think Jesus knew what he was doing when he told us that coming together around simple elements — brought forth as wheat and grape from creation and nurtured into bread and wine — is a profound way to experience God’s love, and to be challenged to extend that holy Table into the world.

Food matters. Food really matters.

Churches have played a tremendous role in responding to the needs of the hungry, through a variety of food programs such as weekly meals for anyone in need in the community, summer meal programs for schoolchildren, and food pantries. This work is important; it shouldn’t stop. And yet, as helpful and theologically grounded (and important!) as food charity is, I’ve learned more and more that the complexity of problems related to food injustice and poverty require an even more robust response from the church; responses that get at the heart of the issues themselves.

Two of my favorite food justice authors Roger Gottlieb and Anapuma Joshi define food justice in terms of equity, fairness, and sustainability not only for consumers and eaters, but also in terms of how food is grown, produced, and accessed. If the food systems that create hunger are characterized by a lack of equity and fairness in any of these areas, then to respond in a meaningful way necessitates paying attention to the interaction of all of these components of food injustice.

I wonder about possibilities for deeper engagement in our Arkansas Methodist churches around this. There are so many ways to do this work creatively! Examining the roots is hard, and time-consuming, and requires asking questions that don’t always have straightforward answers or quick fixes—but is that not the road of faith we walk in our personal lives and with our fellow Christians? The task Jesus gives us to love God and love neighbor is not an easy task, but it is one we do in community.

One such example of this examination of the roots is situated in uncovering the history of lands we live on, and the ways throughout history and into our present in which land has been used to exploit God’s creation—both the land and the people—who were forced leave or to work it. As I’m learning from teachers and writers such as Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch of Arkansas State University, Arkansas is not exempt from a past that not only enslaved Africans and their descendants, but that also upheld many programs (including programs connected to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) that continued to deny African-Americans the right to land ownership even after the abolishment of slavery. We can draw a pretty direct line from this history to the reality of what many experts call “food deserts,” where lack of access to fresh, healthy foods is clustered in specific geographic areas. Communities affected by land loss and food deserts are in or near our churches. I feel God calling us to dive more deeply into the realities that affect their abilities to live the abundant life into which Jesus calls us.

Some might read this and think I’m being “political,” a word that has become so demonized in our age of partisan polarization. But I believe that the God who calls us all to partner in what John Wesley would describe as God’s work of reconciling all of creation, calls us to reckon with the ways in which we humans are capable of both great compassion and kindness and great harm. I think this reckoning sometimes involves zeroing in on the nitty-gritty layers and systems that we move through, even when we’d much rather not look at them at all.

Even as we dive more deeply into the causes of hunger and the ways in which poverty ensnares so many in our communities, let’s not forget the abundant grace of God that is always present, always reaching out, always inviting us into deeper relationship with Christ, one another, and with the Holy Spirit that dwells within each of us. As we gather around Fellowship Hall tables for potlucks and approach a season of holiday meals and gatherings, may we be transformed by meals of grace and the Meal of Grace we partake in as Christians during Communion. May we also extend that grace into each person, creature, and moment we encounter.

Rev. Eva Englert-Jessen (Hendrix ’12, Boston University School of Theology ’17) is a provisional Deacon in the North Texas Conference of the UMC. She is serving in Arkansas as the Program Coordinator for the Center for Calling and Christian Leadership. The Center, which is based at Hendrix College, creates programs for young United Methodists to explore and discern their calls to lay and ordained ministry and church leadership.

Eva is passionate about the intersections of vocation, faith, and justice—especially related to food and the environment. As a Deacon, she is also committed to supporting and creating spaces for the church (broadly defined) to be a source of personal and social transformation.

Q&A w/ Danielle AdkissonExecutive Assistant to the Bishop

Q&A w/ Danielle Adkisson
Executive Assistant to the Bishop

Danielle Adkisson, Executive Assistant to the Bishop

Tell me about yourself: Where you’re from, where you live now, where you went to school, your previous jobs, etc.

I’m originally from Sherwood and graduated high school from Sylvan Hills. I received my degree in Dietetics from U of A-Fayetteville and now live in Conway with my husband and our four furbabies. I taught preschool for eight years before entering my position at Conway First UMC.

What attracted you to the Executive Assistant to the Bishop position?

As an ambitious Methodist woman in administration, what wouldn’t attract me to this position?! The challenges, getting to work day in and day out with the Bishop, becoming “the woman behind the scenes” and connecting with everyone in our conference…all of which drew me in.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role?

That is a difficult question to answer because I’m looking forward to it all!

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

When I am not at work you will find me in my backyard with my dogs, on a hiking trail with my husband, in the gym, with my tribe of incredible friends or curled up with a cup of coffee & a good book.

Who is someone that inspires you in your daily life and why?

I have a guardian angel who inspires me in every aspect of my life. She was the epitome of a powerhouse and set the (very high) bar of the woman I strive to be. I know she’d be extremely proud of this new chapter in my life.

Part of the FamilyPulaski Heights has expanded their Pet Ministry to include grief support, educational classes, and more

Part of the Family
Pulaski Heights has expanded their Pet Ministry to include grief support, educational classes, and more

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

This past year, Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church’s therapy dog training program was so popular, they were forced to put dozens of potential therapy pups and their trainers on a waiting list.

“Every time we put the word out that we were doing another class, the list would fill up immediately,” said Gayle Fiser, Pet Ministry Coordinator at Pulaski Heights.

Fiser said the waitlist grew so large, they had to expand their classes into the summer. The spring and fall, seasons when the classes would normally take place, weren’t cutting it anymore.

As the church heads into 2020, they are now looking at offering more than just therapy dog training; beginning in November, the church is launching a full pet ministry expansion that covers every facet of a pet owner and their furry friends’ lives.

The church is launching three new components to their pet ministry. In addition to therapy dog training in the spring and fall, Pulaski Heights is offering Care and Support for Pet Owners, Community Service and Educational Programs, and Animal Events.

Each one of these components is intended to break down the traditional barriers placed between pets, their owners, and the church, and find ways to incorporate pets fully into the lives of the church community.

“One of the most important pieces of this expansion is Care and Support for Pet Owners. This will be a support system for pet owners who have pets that are sick or have recently died,” Fiser said. “We have a connect card on our church bulletin that has different things you can check for care and support, and we’ll be adding ‘pet illness’ as a box to be checked if you need prayers for your pet.”

Pulaski Heights is also looking to hand out pet prayer blankets, similar to prayer shawls, that Fiser says will let pets know they are surrounded by love and prayers.

“They’ll be made out of fleece instead of a crocheted blanket, that way they are lightweight and soft, and their nails won’t get caught in them.”

Fiser shared two different examples of how she has seen prayer blankets help sick pets and their families through difficult times. In one instance, the pet had been mauled and seriously injured, but miraculously recovered. Fiser said the family attributes the recovery to the prayers that they and their pet received, and the healing power of the prayer blanket.

In another example, a pet was very sick and passed away, but the prayer blanket that was given to their pet was still a comfort to the family during the illness.

“That prayer blanket was very meaningful to the family, and they kept the blanket even after their pet had died,” Fiser said.

Another aspect of the Care and Support Ministry is offering comfort during a situation where a pet has to be put down by a vet.

“I or someone else can go with the owner to the vet to support them and be able to bless the pet before it is put down. The owner can also call the church office on their way to the vet, and drive by the church parking lot to have their pets blessed on the way to the vet,” Fiser said.

The Pet Ministry has found ways to comfort pet owners in other ways as well, like pet-specific prayer cards that they can mail or hand out to people with a sick, injured, or dying pet.

“There’s a part of that pet prayer that says ‘we feel a deep sense of loss over the death of our beloved pet that others may not understand,’ and I think that’s an important phrase because pet owners are hurting and we validate their pain.”

Fiser said they have already heard from pet owners that the prayer card has made a huge difference to them during the grieving process.

“We gave this card to a pet owner whose pet had recently passed away, and they put that prayer card next to a picture of their pet in their home. They found a lot of comfort in that simple prayer. It was helpful to them to know that someone cared,” Fiser said.

“So many people feel guilty about being sad about their pet dying because society makes them think that it’s insignificant and they should not be having these deep feelings of loss over a pet. But when we acknowledge that grief, it’s a relief to them. It lets them know it’s OK to feel sad.”

For the Community Service and Educational Programs aspect of the expansion, Fiser and others are asking pet owners what they would like to see this part of the ministry turn into.

“We may look at setting up adoption events at local animal shelters,” she said.

Educational programs are also being planned for the future and may involve having expert speakers come and talk to pet owners about a wide range of topics, such as addressing and stopping bad behaviors in a pet or how to introduce children to a new family animal.

“We might even bring in a professional photographer that can show you how to take the best photos of your pet!” Fiser said.

Remington and his owner the Rev. Candace Barron went through therapy dog training at PHUMC. Now, they travel around to area nursing homes and hospitals to visit people and offer comfort to those who need it most. || Photo provided by Candace Barron

Building an online resource for pet owners is something that Fiser is hoping can happen in the future. By filming or live streaming the lectures and hosting them on Pulaski Heights’ website, they can open up their ministry to young families who might be too busy with work or taking care of their children and pets to attend a lecture in person.

Animals Events, the third aspect of the ministry, has already been implemented by Pulaski Heights thanks to their annual Blessing of the Animals, which takes place every October at the church’s Hillcrest campus.

The Blessing of the Animals celebrates the birthday of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint for ecologists who had an unending passion for animals and nature. Each year, people are invited to bring their pet — whether that’s a cat, dog or even a turtle — and have them blessed by a member of the clergy at PHUMC.

Pulaski Heights’ original pet ministry, therapy dog training, is also looking to continue to grow in 2020.

The Rev. Candace Barron and her standard poodle, Remington, are two recent graduates of the Pulaski Heights’ therapy dog training.

“I originally went through the training with Remington because I thought it was a great program, but I also saw it as something that I could start at my church as well,” Barron said.

Barron is the pastor of two churches in North Little Rock; Amboy UMC and Gardner Memorial UMC.

She said Remington is a rescue and was very shy when she first adopted him, but the training at PHUMC helped him to be more confident around people and dogs he’s never met.

Since going through the training and receiving a certification, Remington and Barron travel to the VA Hospital in North Little Rock each month to visit the patients there, as well as some of the area nursing homes. Remington is able to bring comfort and serve the patients in both the hospital and nursing homes.

“People in nursing homes and veterans hospitals are often dog lovers, but they can’t have a dog where they are. So being able to be around a dog again, even if just for a little while, makes them so happy and you can tell it brings them so much joy,” Barron said.

Fiser said when she counted up every event the therapy dogs had helped with throughout the year — from visiting nursing homes, hospitals, and Alzheimer’s patients at home to events like Blue Christmas — she found that the dogs had put in more than 206 hours of service.

Fiser said one of the reasons the idea for a pet ministry has been embraced at Pulaski Heights is because of the church’s clergy who see this as a way to reach people — specifically, pet owners — that the church has not yet reached.

“We’re blessed to have an associate pastor — Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder — who has embraced this ministry and sees it as cutting edge in the church,” Fiser said. “All of this is kind of her brainchild; you know, having pets in worship. And our other pastors have embraced it as well since starting our therapy dog training.

“With the pet ministry, I think God is guiding us along through this and we just need to be smart enough to follow.”

Personally, Fiser feels a special attachment to the pet ministry. Not only has she worked with churches to bring pet ministries to two different United Methodist congregations in Arkansas, but she’s also a pet lover herself.

“The part of this that means the most to me is the care and support that we can now offer pet owners. When you have a seriously ill pet or have lost a pet, you understand the need for comfort. It’s such a big part of your life. It’s going to mean so much to people that the church now ministers to that wound and that pain. It just means a lot.”

For more information on Pulaski Heights’ newly launched Pet Ministry, contact Gayle Fiser at 501-766-3810 or gaylefiser100@gmail.com.

Little Oaks, Big DreamsMabelvale's ballpark needs help. The local UMC is working to give them a community space again

Little Oaks, Big Dreams
Mabelvale's ballpark needs help. The local UMC is working to give them a community space again

By Sam Pierce

Featured Contributor

Blair Ragsdale has only ever been thrown out of one ballpark in her life.

“An umpire and I got into it one evening and he tossed me,” she said. “There are a lot of good memories over there. I’m 68 and I have spent many an hour with my children when they were growing up — it was a good time.

“I’d like the children now to have that same experience.”

Ragsdale currently serves on the board of directors for the Mabelvale Youth Association, which is working towards restoring the Little Oaks Ballpark.

“We are trying to give the kids a place that is safe and a family atmosphere,” Ragsdale said. “We want to see the community kids be involved in something that is healthy and it motivates them to be a better family — better parents.”

She said there are quite a few children in the area that need help, desperately.

“The family situation is not good in our area. Our goal is to get a safe place, somewhere close, where they can go and play ball and have an area to play,” Ragsdale said.

She said a local group donated 18 acres that are adjacent to the ball fields, and eventually, the goal is to put in soccer fields and have a sports complex for this area near Little Rock. Ragsdale said, right now, children have to travel 30 miles to play ball, in any direction.

“There isn’t any place close for these children,” she said. “Hopefully, we can get the ball fields up and going, even if it is just for day games.

“We have been working on this for about two years now. The church has held fundraisers, but it is going to take time and effort to get this ballpark open. It is going to take a lot of help and prayers.

“Hopefully, we can get one or two fields where the kids can play during the day.”

Ragsdale is also a member of Mabelvale United Methodist Church, which sits across the street from the ball fields.

“This is a community-owned park, it is not owned by the city,” Ragsdale said. “We want to get some community interest in getting it going, and we need help with some of the projects.

“We have to repair fences, and the bleachers all need to be painted and done. We are in desperate need of finances and volunteers — of course, that is probably everybody these days.”

Mabelvale UMC pastor Bob Marble remembers standing out in front of the church a while back surveying the demographics, and there, two blocks from the east parking lot, stood Little Oaks Ball Park, in “dire need of being brought back to life.”

“I had a meeting with our director of outreach, Blair, and we discussed the possibilities of it being a place that is safe for our community’s children and families,” he said. “I then met with our city director, Joan Adcock, and when I told her our church’s plan to revitalize the park, she became excited.

“It continues to be a work in progress. It isn’t where I would have it wanted it to be. I wanted us to have teams in place and playing this past summer. But I have learned to be patient and God does things in his time.”

He said when he and Ragsdale told the congregation about their idea of revitalizing it for children and their families, the congregation jumped right in.

“Our children that live in our community have no place to play,” he said. “They have our playground at the church, but our children need avenues on which to spend their energies and a safe place to do it. The park is necessary.”

She said the church has partnered with the city and hosted community workdays and spent a whole day cleaning and mowing the grass in an effort to beautify the park once more.

“Our biggest goal is to get lights for the fields,” she said. “Our lighting is not safe for the children, but to put lights on those fields, is going to cost $350,000 — which is a goal we may or may not hit.”

Mabelvale Baseball League was founded in 1956 and began with one field. A second field was constructed in 1958 and a third was constructed in 1965. In 1994, the concession stand was vandalized and was reconstructed to its current design.

She said in 2001, the Little League field was renovated by Billy Smith and in appreciation of his contributions, the field was renamed as Billy Smith Field.

“Originally, Mabelvale Youth Association, the governing board, was established to start and oversee the park,” Ragsdale said. “A separate board, Little Oaks Ballpark board, was established under that board to manage the day-to-day park activities.

“This worked well for more than 50 years, then the establishing board members aged, moved or passed away, therefore there was no oversight of the Little Oaks Ballpark board.”

She said the Little Oaks Ballpark board eventually disbanded, leaving one person and that person left without naming anyone in charge — leaving the ballpark vacant.

“We have begun talks with the city in hopes of utilizing the park for game day picnics for our families,” she said. “A local electrical company has offered to hang lighting and move existing light poles for our evening games.”

In September of 2017, more than 100 volunteers, including former players at the park, came and assisted with the clean up of the park.

“We haven’t branched out real big,” she said. “But, when we do ask, we get quite a bit of response — it is kind of surreal.

“The stuff we need to do is large, but all the same things that can be done, the community has really pitched in.”

Marble said one member has come forward and said, once the park is fully functional, he will buy all the balls, bats, and gloves for children whose families can’t afford to buy them.

“If a family cannot afford a glove, we want to be able to provide it for them,” Ragsdale said. “These ball fields are designed for any child to play ball.

“We wanted it to be a true community, neighborhood-type ballpark.”

Ragsdale said when they first started on this project, they organized a ball camp and got one field playable for children in the community.

“Our church donated bats, balls, and gloves and we had them at the park every Saturday, instructing them on how to play ball,” Ragsdale said. “We had a little bit of a summer camp last year.”

She said Mabelvale UMC is really community-oriented and she works really close with the elementary children.

“It just seemed right, because these kids don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said. “My son played out here, my husband played out there growing up. It has always been a part of the community.

“We want to have that community feel, that they can have fun, play ball and have the families together. We are trying to get everybody to sit down, have dinner together and be involved in the community.”

A Little Corny, A Lot of Fun

A Little Corny, A Lot of Fun

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Last month, The Arkansas Conference had a booth at the 6th annual Arkansas Cornbread Festival, a celebration of all things corny, that took place on Oct. 26 in the South Main neighborhood, one of the funkiest and fasting growing neighborhoods in Little Rock.

A few months prior, during one of our Center for Communication meetings, we were discussing ways to reach out to our community and let them know that the United Methodist Church is still alive and active in the state.

Because let’s face it, the only people that know about the Arkansas Conference are the people that work there, our clergy, and our lay leaders (some of our own Methodist members don’t even know we exist!)

I suggested we look at the annual Cornbread Festival for a few reasons: it’s one of the most popular festivals in Little Rock, it’s fun and unique, and it’s right down the road from our office at Philander Smith College.

We decided to give away some swag (stickers, buttons and magnets featuring the newly redesigned Conference logo) and pass out information on United Methodist churches in the surrounding area.

But we still had one big question that we didn’t yet know how to answer: how would we get people to actually come to our tent and talk to us?

To be honest, most people aren’t coming to the festival to talk to religious folks, much less find a home church in their neighborhood.

That’s when the idea for a dog photo booth came up; what if we had another reason for people to visit us? Something that could potentially lead to questions about church and faith?

Or not! We weren’t really concerned with “evangelizing” to folks who were there trying to hang out with their family and eat some authentic Arkansas cornbread.

And I’m proud to say that our photo booth was a big success! We had so many happy pet owners stop by that it was hard to keep up with at times!

Even though we only spoke to a few people about churches, we came away from that weekend knowing we had accomplished our goals.

We were visible in the community. We brought people joy through our dog photo booth. We gave away some conference swag. We had fun.

It’s not always about reaching as many people as you can with the message of Christ. You can’t approach everyone with that mindset; that your only job is to preach the gospel. You have to establish a relationship first. You have to be approachable.

True connections, real relationships often lead to deeper discussions. I think we need to start with that before catching someone off guard with faith talks.

We’re not done with festivals, either. We’ll be hitting up a few more in the spring.

So come by and see us if you live in the Little Rock area! Our experiment might work so well that we branch out to other areas of the conference.

In the meantime, we’re just happy knowing that we were able to spread a little extra joy in the world.

Advent Sparks Light at Methodist Family Health

By Amy Shores

Director of Pastoral Care, Methodist Family Health

I have a pretty unpopular opinion. Unlike what feels like 95% of the population, Christmas is not my favorite holiday. I’m more of an Easter kind of girl. Give me spring, give me pastels and coconut candy and dyed eggs, not to mention the joyous and triumphant celebrations that happen in churches on Easter Sunday morning, and I’m happy. However, that being said, my affinity for Advent has started to grow during my time with Methodist Family Health.

I’m beginning to like Christmas more and more because of the amazing things that I am able to experience each year during the season. In October, we start looking for families, individuals, Sunday School classes and youth groups to “adopt a wish list.” Those in our care all have the chance to create a Christmas wish list, so we need donors and shoppers who are willing to turn those wishes into realities. Between our residential treatment facilities, our hospital in Maumelle, our day schools, our CARES program, our group homes, and a few of our outpatient clinics, we provided Christmas wish lists for more than 200 individuals last year. So, beginning in October, I have the chance to start talking with all of the wonderful donors who make this happen.

Once donors are in place, I get to move on to collecting wish lists! It’s so fun listening to kids’ dreams and getting excited about gifts—more than once I’ve had kids tell me this is the first time they’ve been able to have a list like this. Once lists are done, I pass them on to donors who shop and then drop-off gifts, and then myself and other volunteers process them with a giant two-day wrapping extravaganza. My last step in our gift process is delivering the gifts to our facilities, where they are opened on Christmas morning!

Along with all of the gifts, we also have a variety of parties and programs at all of our different facilities, and I make it my goal to be at as many of them as I can! I have to admit, though, that I have a favorite Christmas activity when it comes to Methodist Family Health. Our CARES moms, who are our ladies in treatment for mental illness and addiction, create not only a wish list for themselves, but they also make a list for each of their children. Instead of wrapping their kids’ gifts at our big volunteer wrapping event, we set the CARES kids’ gifts aside and they get to have their own party, where we have snacks, listen to Christmas music, and the moms set to work preparing gifts for their children. I will never forget walking into the wrapping room last year to find a mom sitting in the middle of a stack of presents, sobbing. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that she had never had this many gifts for her children and that she had never once wrapped them. Her recovery was giving her the chance to provide something for her kids (and honestly, for herself) that she had always wanted.

It was more than just her recovery that provided this chance, however. It was the UMW group that provided the party, it was the donors who bought the gifts, and it was the continued generosity of Arkansas United Methodists that help our programs continue to exist. If you are interested in adopting a wish-list, in helping wrap gifts, in providing a Christmas party, or in some other way helping volunteer and bring Christmas to the kids at Methodist Family Health, we would love to have your participation.

Please contact Amy Shores at ashores@methodistfamily.org. Wish lists will be ready before Black Friday, and we need all gifts back by Dec. 13, in order to get them wrapped and delivered!