Howard Chapel UMC stays connected with unlikely combination


By Kara Witherow, Editor

The unlikely combination of fruit and technology are helping one South Georgia pastor stay connected to her congregation in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Like other churches, Howard Chapel United Methodist Church in Dublin suspended all in-person activities in March. But with a mostly older and vulnerable congregation, Rev. Cleo Gilchrist hasn’t yet felt comfortable re-starting in-person worship services.

It’s been hard being away from one another for nearly seven months, she said.

“I’m a people person, and I didn’t really get to know my members well before COVID kicked in,” said Rev. Gilchrist, who began serving Howard Chapel UMC in July 2019. “My PPR chair and I talked about how I could get to know the members better and keep in touch.”

Enter scuppernongs. Those sweet, green, and oh-so-Southern of fruits have helped her stay connected to church members.

On birthdays, when someone is sick or diagnosed with COVID-19, or just because, she and Cheryl King, Howard Chapel UMC’s Pastor-Parish Relations Committee chairwoman, will deliver a basket full of the large grapes to the person’s front porch. A note accompanies the treat, telling the recipient that they’re loved and being prayed for.

Rev. Gilchrist and King have delivered other such “porch surprises” like flowers, meals, and Upper Room devotionals to those who are homebound, having surgery, or are in the hospital. They brighten people’s days, King said, and lets them know they’re cared for.

“People need to know you care and are concerned about them,” said King. “We never know how it’s touching them spiritually.”

Even in the midst of the pandemic, these efforts have helped Rev. Gilchrist better know her neighbors, the congregation, and the people in the community.

“We found that (the porch surprises) really stirred the members,” she said. “My goal has been to get to know the members of my church and the community, the people around the church. You have to be intentional, you have to go out and talk to people and let them know you understand how they feel.”

Relationships are important, Rev. Gilchrist said, and to maintain and build their relationships with one another those in the Howard Chapel UMC congregation have stretched themselves and embraced technology.

More than 20 people are meeting together for Bible study every Wednesday via teleconference. They’ve studied Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.

“Media has brought the church closer together than I could have, I believe,” she said. “Like Bishop Bryan said, it has stretched me, and it has stretched our members. Never would I have gotten them to read as much as they’ve read. We’re reading scripture in depth and are enjoying it.”

The congregation also “gathers” online each Sunday morning to worship, and every second Sunday of the month they share an online Love Feast. Videos of services are published and shared on YouTube.

Church members have stepped outside their comfort zones and have embraced technology, Rev. Gilchrist said. Nearly everyone has a cell phone and has learned how to use applications and access YouTube.

“They really like Zoom because they can see each other. I have a 90-year-old learning how to do Zoom!”

Learning, embracing, and using technology are helping the congregation stay connected when they can’t physically be together, but technology is also helping break down walls between the congregation and the community.

“It’s growing our church. It’s changing them,” Rev. Gilchrist said. “It’s helping us reach out. Now we’re fellowshipping with the community and hearing that they have the same needs and thoughts we have.”

But the low-tech methods – a phone call, a handwritten note, a safe in-person visit, or a love basket left on a porch – are just as important to keeping in touch, King said.

“It’s just those little things,” she said. “If it matters to me as a person, I know it will mean a whole lot to other people.”