Answering the Call Answers the CallCarroll County Churches Come Together To Feed the Community

Answering the Call Answers the Call
Carroll County Churches Come Together To Feed the Community

volunteers answering the call

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

At the beginning of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, jobs were lost, church ministries were temporarily shuttered, and for many people in rural Carroll County, they were now faced with the dilemma of figuring out how they were going to feed their families and take care of their most basic needs.

Determined to not let the people of Carroll County suffer alone and without aid, volunteers at Eureka Springs First United Methodist Church decided to do something to help their community and formed a volunteer ministry called Answering the Call.

“When the pandemic began, we received a $10,000 gift and were asked to do something for the community. And so we decided we’d try to feed people that were sick, quarantined, unemployed, and had a loss of wages,” said the Rev. Blake Lasater, senior pastor at Eureka Springs FUMC.

The gift was given by the Living Legacy Foundation, a California-based nonprofit. According to LLF’s website, their mission is to “financially support organizations that are helping those struggling daily with the circumstances of poverty.”

Lasater said he personally knows the person who runs the foundation, and they reached out to him asking “what could be done for your community if you were to receive this $10,000 gift?”

Lasater and a group of church members decided to gather the next morning at the church and discuss how they could use this financial opportunity to benefit their community. After much discussion, the group decided that the mission would be to feed people that could no longer provide for themselves and to name the newly formed ministry Answering the Call.

“In naming it Answering the Call, we didn’t want to be stigmatized by a religious label, you know, like a denominational label, because a lot of people are still hung up on thinking, ‘oh, that’s the Methodist Church. Well, I’m not Methodist, so they won’t help me.’ And that’s kind of been, I guess, the culture in this county, that churches only help people within their churches,” Lasater said. “So we chose Answering the Call because it shows our community that anything they need, not just meal deliveries, but groceries or anything you can’t get out of your house to get, we can get it to you.”

Kim Stryker, a member of Eureka Springs FUMC who also volunteers with Answering the Call, said everyone in their group feels a call to help the people living in their community who can’t help themselves right now.

“We all felt a sense of urgency to somehow get food to the people who needed it most: those who were health compromised, suddenly unemployed, alone and afraid,” Stryker said.

“Facing a situation that, to the small human mind looked impossible, the clear message we kept receiving was ‘I will make the crooked road straight.’ So we shook off our human fear and doubt and trusted completely that God was in charge of this deal and our job was to just get going,” she said.

volunteers delivery

Two volunteers with Answering the Call prepare to make a delivery at a resident’s home in Carroll County.

To feed the community safely, the church needed help getting meals to people’s homes. Besides a few larger towns like Eureka Springs, Berryville, and Green Forest, Carroll County is a mostly rural area that winds up, down, and over the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. This makes it difficult for many people, especially those who are elderly or sick, to leave their homes and travel to the nearest food pantry.

Stryker said they were able to partner with a local representative for Ben E. Keith, a food distributor, who provided fully prepared meals in bulk. The meals were then loaded into vehicles and distributed throughout Carroll County by way of more than 50 volunteers.

The first meals were delivered on April 1, 2020, and more than 200 volunteers have “answered the call” to help feed people in Carroll County.

“Statistically speaking, we have sure fed a whole lot of folks: more than 27,000 meals delivered, thousands of pounds of produce, thousands of delivery miles driven, and tens of thousands in monetary contributions,” Stryker said.

After the initial $10,000 gift, Lasater said they were able to fundraise for the rest of their expenses. A few grants from various groups, like an $18,000 grant from the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas, helped to fund the project throughout the summer and past the end of the year.

The Methodist Foundation grant came about thanks to the Rev. Michael Bolin, senior pastor at Green Forest United Methodist Church.

Lasater said he and Bolin partnered up in the late summer of 2020 to help deliver even more meals to people living in Eastern Carroll County. With Green Forest UMC’s volunteers now helping to deliver meals to their part of the county, Eureka Springs was able to focus more on providing meals to people living on their side of the Kings River in Western Carroll County.

“We got involved because Blake extended the olive branch out to us and asked if we would be interested in covering our side of Carroll County,” said Bolin. “We’ve covered from the east side of the river to Berryville and all the way to the town of Alpena.”

michael and blake

Rev. Michael Bolin, left, and Rev. Blake Lasater have not only become partners in ministry but great friends as well.

Bolin and Lasater’s partnership might be surprising for some who know both men and their congregations. Eureka Springs FUMC resides in the quirky, Victorian-style town of Eureka Springs, which is known for its openness toward the LGBTQIA+ community. Likewise, Eureka Springs FUMC is a Reconciling Congregation.

Green Forest UMC is a more traditional congregation theologically, and likewise, the town of Green Forest is a more rural town, with far fewer tourists than Eureka Springs.

But for Lasater and Bolin, two men who sit on opposite sides of the theological debate within the UMC, they don’t see this as a hindrance to their mission and partnership.

“I wanted this partnership to be a testimony to our Conference that even though we may have different theological views, we could still work together and that the mission superseded our individual or corporate dogmas that we may represent,” Bolin said.

“It’s allowed me to embrace a brother in Christ in a new way. I understand that we may have different ideas theologically, and probably politically as well, but there’s nobody that’s a greater person that exemplifies the love of God [than Blake]. And I’m not trying to minimize any of my other clergy friends or laity friends. I just want to say that this has allowed me to make a new friend who was already a brother in Christ.”

“It’s been really cool to see the partnership that Michael and I have built between two churches that are on opposite ends of the spectrum theologically, and we’ve grown pretty close in the midst of this,” Lasater said. “And like I told him, you know, this pandemic is a paradigm shift for our Church. Maybe we need to rethink these fights we’re having and focus on some shared values of serving the community that all of us can get behind instead of talking about how we’re going to split everything up.”

volunteer with boxes of food

A volunteer poses with a stack of meal boxes. Each box will make its way to a person in need in the Carroll County community.

As a result of Answering the Call’s efforts in the last year, the state of Arkansas’ EngageAR program awarded the ministry with the Volunteer Community of the Year Award in January 2021.

“I believe I speak for all of us when I say we were humbled by the recognition and placed it squarely where it belongs – with the community who owns and powers this effort,” Stryker said.

Lasater said the group has plans to continue providing meals for people in 2021, and they have been able to secure a steady stream of monetary gifts and donations to help power the ministry.

“We’ve been asking ourselves the question, what comes next for Answering the Call? What’s the big need in our community? Because we’ve got the money, and we’ve got the volunteer force. We’re going to be brainstorming very soon to try to figure out what we can do next.”

For more information on Answering the Call, follow their Facebook Page at facebook.com/ATCforEureka.

The Living Stone and a Chosen PeopleReflections on I'm Black. I'm Christian. I'm Methodist.

The Living Stone and a Chosen People
Reflections on I'm Black. I'm Christian. I'm Methodist.

i'm black i'm christian i'm methodist

By Rev. Rashim Merriwether

Special Assistant to the Bishop on Ethnic Concerns and Initiatives

4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-6 New International Version (NIV)

Recently, I was blessed to take part in an open panel webinar sponsored by the United Methodist Foundation in partnership with the Arkansas Conference’s work on dismantling racism. The webinar centered on a recent book titled “I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist,” edited by the Rev. Dr. Rudy Rasmus. The panel consisted of a few of its contributors, Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, Rev. Dr. Lillian Smith, Rev. Justin Coleman, Rev. Dr. Erin Beasley, Rev. Dr. Tori C. Butler, and Rev. Dr. Vance P. Ross. 

I enjoyed listening to each of the panelists as they shared from their chapters in the book, and provided the audience with wisdom and reflective thoughts, spoken through the lens of each of their unique and insightful perspectives. I found the challenge to webinar participants, along with other individuals, communities, churches, and greater society, summed up in a few reflective questions: 

  • Are you merely looking for additions in pigment, content or prophetic leadership?
  • Are you willing to be? Are you willing to be the transformed Church?
  • What are you willing to offer to create positive black content in our churches?
  • Are you willing to support initiatives to include and strengthen black churches whether it means starting fresh or retrofitting existing churches to become positive, vibrant, essential black churches?

As the panelists asked these questions, I found myself reflecting on the title and its prophetic implication and reality to people like myself. 

Rev. Dr. Johnson, led the conversation, setting the tone and with extreme intention prophetically sharing some inescapable realities that need to be considered and kept in context as we made use of this and any future moments of reflection. We must realize we have a responsibility to hear the voices of the past, then learn and finally mature into the Christians, leaders, teachers we are supposed to be. Things like entitlement, whiteness, whichever way it is identified, is a reality in the landscape of our existence. It is as sure as each breath that there will be a residual deposit of countless years of oppression, hate, and systematic or systemic racist processes tethered to each moment lived. Understanding, identifying, and knowing this is the beginning of living into a transforming opportunity.

However, we are responsible for the narrative, the work, and the future of what the world and the Church will become. Honest dialogue to the ugliness of systemic racism and its impact on every level of society is important, but only half of the conversation. There also has to be intentional work to become prophetic witnesses. We are called to be reminders of how things were and how they ought to be. So, my blackness is not and should never be the issue, but the witness, perspective, and experience I have to share should be the focus. As Rev. Coleman began, he went a little deeper to address one of the underlying identities associated as a pre-curse maker to African American people in this country: “Blackness.” 

I was moved by how Justin identified and quantified the term “Blackness”; How his encounters and unique perspective challenge us to view “Blackness” as more than social identity. It is a statement of cultural, theological, and historical significance to both individual “Blackness,” and its contributory, irreplaceable part in the conversation of race and anti-racism. 

In short, “Blackness” is a gift, not a mark. When identified, expressed, and shared, it is a gift that adds to the development of a larger, brighter picture in the vision of self, community, and yes, especially the church’s life. The imagery of superheroes with a mission to use their powers of “Blackness” to protect, add meaning, and offer cultural, spiritual growth to every situation, every conversation, every collective that had the opportunity to experience the power of “Blackness” from these superheroes.

However, I saw the importance of keeping an eye on the ball. These days, real lifelong engagement is essential and a vital part of the equation for real transformation. Too often, as people face the reality of the ugliness of racism, it makes a person begin to question their trajectory, discussions, input, and longevity. But Rev. Dr. Smith says that engaging the issue is only one part. One has to allow themselves to lean into the uncomfortability which comes through this work. 

Then she said something I have had to bite a lip, close my eyes, kneel and pray over so many times: “Trust the process.” It is only in our resolve and “sold-outness” we can live out the expectation of answered prayer and transformation. Nothing can change if somebody doesn’t offer themselves as a holy living sacrifice to God. But this leads to some uncomfortable places and realities.

Rev. Dr. Beasley reminds all that these wounds run deep. To begin the process is also to take ownership of your part in this conversation. No one is immune or excused from the conversation. Each person has a role and a responsibility; that is a fact. Rev. Dr. Butler continues this conversation by calling for people to lament and be intentional in the work on “self” and how we stay true to the honesty of the story. To make sure that this is not a checkmark box moment, but one of true transformation. All the things spoken, the lenses and the thoughts made for a real watershed moment. But I think some of the last ideas shared that day were important; ideas that take place after all the identifying, naming, and processing are complete.

Rev. Dr. Ross called everyone exposed to the issue of racism, its history, its forms, its constructs, and presence in our current narrative to a greater call and responsibility. That role will never be easy to accept, but as a doctor explains the health status of a patient and offers a prescription to foster healing, recovery, and transformation in the patient’s future health, so too must the church receive the prescription for healing and future health. 

“Receive, take and commit to the prescription…” This idea means dedication to the processes and changes to assure the future health of the church. This is our call, this is our responsibility, and this will become our legacy.

Hope First UMC Offers Mental Health Coaching Through Online Training Program

Hope First UMC Offers Mental Health Coaching Through Online Training Program

hope fumc

Hope FUMC in Hope, AR. Photo by Rodney Steele

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Mental health has become an important facet of a person’s overall well-being, even more so as the world continues the slow recovery from the last year of pandemic isolation.

That is one of the reasons why Hope First United Methodist Church has made an effort this year to assist their church and community with its mental health needs by providing mental health counseling to anyone who needs it.

The Rev. Steve Johnson said the church’s efforts to provide mental health help started with his own experience going through a training program with the American Association of Christian Counselors.

“I’m a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors, and have been for many years,” said Johnson, senior pastor at Hope FUMC. “I got an email about this course and how, especially with a pandemic, that they were hoping to train some people to help others as they try to cope with mental health issues, not just considering the pandemic, but just in general.”

Johnson said to get his church enrolled in the program, he signed up through the organization’s website. He said that there is no cost for a church to enroll in the program and tuition is free for members who take the training.

The name of the training program that Johnson underwent is called the Mental Health Coach First Responder Training. It’s a 40-hour, all online training program that consists of on-demand video lectures from “some of the world’s leading mental health experts,” according to a brochure provided by Johnson.

The training is Biblically-based, and training courses can be accessed at any time from any internet-connected device.

“It’s broken down lesson by lesson, and each lesson is usually 45 minutes to an hour. Then there’s a short quiz after each lesson that you take and then it’ll move on to the next one,” Johnson said.

Johnson said after churches go through the training and complete it, they can then advertise to their community that they offer Christian counseling.

There are currently five other people from Hope FUMC who hope to go through the training, and all of them are laity in the church.

One of the new students hoping to complete his training this year is Bobby Hart, superintendent for Hope Public Schools in Hope, Arkansas.

Hart attends Hope FUMC and said that he entered the program from a referral that Rev. Johnson gave to him.

“I hope this training will help me to offer a kind ear and trained voice when working with students and staff in my school district,” Hart said.

He said that mental health help for the community is more important than ever, and it’s becoming a more common issue, especially in schools.

“As an educator, I see this in children and in adults. We have to find ways to remove the stigma attached to these issues and make seeking help for mental health issues no different than any other health care issue.”

Johnson said that he’s happy that a group like AACC is offering free training to churches, and hopes that more churches in the Arkansas Conference will take advantage of this.

“A lot of communities, and a lot of people, can’t afford coaching or counseling, and so this kind of fills the gap. It’s not so much based on trying to cure someone of a mental health illness. It’s more based on providing life skills and coping skills; helping someone reach the goal that they want to have an abundant life.

As for the future, Johnson hopes that he can get more people to undergo this training, and provide a support system for the community in Hope.

“Hopefully, we can get a mental health ministry established by using these coaches and offering it to the community as a way to have outreach. Not necessarily to draw people into the church, per se, but to help them with life. Of course, a side benefit would be if they became part of the church. But it’s not the total goal.”

The Water Is Wide and DeepWesleyan Small Groups Serve as a Tool for Deeper Engagement

The Water Is Wide and Deep
Wesleyan Small Groups Serve as a Tool for Deeper Engagement

By Rev. Eva Englert-Jessen

Program Director, Hendrix College Center for Calling & Christian Leadership

I can’t name a specific moment when I began to take seriously the question, “Am I brave enough to say this out loud and over coffee with a friend or colleague, just as I am to post it on Instagram?”

Like many of us, I continue to learn all the time about how to navigate the weird and connecting world that is social media.

Social media is the space where boundaries in space and time are made invisible; where we are drawn closer to one another in shared stories of struggle, joy, and celebration. It is also a space where, in my experience, we can be pulled away like oil and water as our immense differences in life experience, religious and political affiliations, and values become condensed into faceless quips in the form of comments and angry emojis. And in the midst of a pandemic and multiple reckonings with crises around mental health, racism, and fragile democracy, these media have been our primary way to stay engaged.

I am so grateful for the moments when enlightening learning or conversation does occur on social media. I’m also simultaneously haunted by a perpetual question nearly every time I interact with it: Is this powerful tool also inviting us into deeper engagement as disciples of Jesus Christ? Are we asking tough questions about the power and influence that social media companies wield over our lives? Are we pairing our online courage (which we know can sometimes feel performative) with flesh-and-blood conversations that might ask us to be vulnerable or even uncomfortable? Are we creating and entering spaces to be in awe of one another as God’s creatures—not just consumable objects?

I wonder if our own Wesleyan heritage might offer us some meaningful tools. Small groups are embedded in Methodist DNA, especially in the Methodist movement’s early days in 18th century England. Small groups of about 12 people from a similar neighborhood, called classes, would gather weekly in covenant discipleship. They gathered to share their souls and to be held accountable in community to their own spiritual growth, which included not only their private devotion to the Christian life but to service and engagement in the wider community. And stuff got real: people shared their struggles in their marriages, with addictions, and in remaining connected to their neighborhoods.

Sound familiar? I wonder where our churches are already home to small groups of grace-filled accountability and Christian community such as those experienced during John Wesley’s ministry. I wonder where spaces with that kind of loving honesty can dwell even more expansively; not in opposition to online community (which is vital), but alongside of it. If we affirm as Methodists that we will be made perfect in love by God through sanctifying grace, then perhaps a deepening of small group discipleship can be part of this journey. What a gift that such a tool is part of who we are.

As we journey closer to the cross in this holy season of Lent, a season that asks us to ponder God’s love in our lives and to confront the ways in which we have yet to live in ways that reflect that love, I’m feeling the Spirit’s invitation to ask these hard questions of myself. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Create in us hearts of courage, gentleness, grace, and mercy.

Lent’s Eat!Elm Springs Duo Takes Church Cookbook Online With Video Cooking Series

Lent’s Eat!
Elm Springs Duo Takes Church Cookbook Online With Video Cooking Series

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

The pandemic has made us all chefs. At some point during the year-long quarantine, we have all tried our hand at reigniting a passion for cooking or attempting a new recipe. For some, we were happy just to keep the kitchen from burning down around us.

At Elm Springs United Methodist Church, the Rev. Jennie Williams and Brooke Hobbs have taken their cooking know-how and created a brand new internet cooking show that’s fun, engaging, and tells a bigger story of the strong community connections found at the church.

Williams, senior pastor at Elm Springs, said the idea came about after finding a collection of old cookbooks that church members had published.

“During the pandemic, we’ve really had a lot of time to kind of go through everything in the church and clean out things that we find. One of those times when I was cleaning up, I found a stack of cookbooks, dating from around 2014 or so,” Williams said.

“So then I was like, well, I’m really bad at cooking, and I don’t like doing it. So why don’t we film ourselves cooking things out of this book?”

Williams enlisted Hobbs, the new Youth and Communications Coordinator at Elm Springs, to help with the videos’ production and editing. Hobbs has experience filming and editing videos, so it was a natural fit for her.

“Brooke is why there’s been such a substantial bump in our production quality,” Williams said.

The video series is called Lent’s Eat, a play off of the title of the church cookbook, Let’s Eat, and the holy season of Lent, which is when the videos will be published.

In each video, Williams and Hobbs explain which recipe they’re going to tackle that week, as well as name the author of the original recipe. Many of the people who submitted recipes are still members of Elm Springs. If they have died or no longer attend the church, Williams said the videos allow their children or grandchildren to see their family members’ recipes come to life.

“It’s been a great way to connect with some of our members who are homebound and can’t come to the church right now for different reasons,” Williams said.

Choosing to take the recipes and repurpose them into a video format rather than republishing them on their website or in a church bulletin was a decision that was made because of the massive influence of video content right now, said Hobbs.

“We noticed that our video content is really engaging for folks, and we wanted to be able to put something out there weekly that broke up the monotony of the normal, not just something that we’ve done before, like a video devotional. This is something that increased our engagement with our online community in a new way,” Hobbs said.

Right now, the goal is to release videos every week, Williams said. The first video covered a Mexican Casserole dish created by Elm Springs member David Cheek and a Hot Artichoke Dip recipe by Doris Turentine.

In the video, Williams and Hobbs explain the origins of the recipes and then show a step-by-step process for how you can make them at home. At the end of the video, Rev. Williams offers a blessing to both Cheek and Turentine and thanks them for their contributions to the cookbook.

“The first recipe we did was Doris’s artichoke dip, and Doris is homebound right now, so I’ve never met her; I’ve only talked to her on the phone. But I’ve connected with her granddaughter, who’s around my age. She watched the video, and then she took it over and let her grandmother watch it.

“And so I know it has been fruitful, in terms of it being light and silly, but I think it’s also been meaningful for some of those people as well.”

Rev. Jennie Williams, left, and Brooke Hobbs are the creators behind a new online video series called Lent’s Eat.

Williams and Hobbs film, edit, and publish the videos as a team for Elm Springs UMC.

In their latest video, Rev. Williams and Hobbs make a monkey bread recipe from the Let’s Eat cookbook.

Hobbs said that they intentionally didn’t edit out mistakes they made while cooking the recipes to make it feel more authentic. At one point in the Mexican Casserole video, we follow Williams and the uncooked casserole as she travels across the church’s property to find a working oven, as the first two ovens she tries have issues heating up.

“I think the thing that Pastor Jennie and I both recognize is that we do want to be culturally relevant across all of the generations. This video is really fun and has more of a TikTok style to bring in some millennials and younger. But then also think about making it relevant to all generations,” Hobbs said.

Williams said that this video series has not only been good for her church community, but it’s also been good for her personal health as well.

“One of the things that I feel like is my gift is connecting with people. Moving to a new church in a pandemic is like a nightmare for somebody like me, who thrives on making personal connections. And so this helps me get partly there with making connections again,” Williams said. “I am who I am, and God picked me to to be in this role. And so I like to share that with others because I’m obviously imperfect. But I still feel like God can use me. And that’s sort of what I want to communicate in all these different ways, whether I’m talking about theology or whether I’m just cooking a recipe and making, like, seven mistakes along the way.”

To watch Lent’s Eat, visit Elm Springs’s Facebook Page. New recipe videos will be posted each week during the Lenten season.