Severe winter alters church routines but not commitment

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Last week, Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End had a dilemma.

A snow emergency parking ban and, well, snow — on the streets, on the sidewalks, piled up to the stained-glass windows, with the promise of Valentine’s Day snowstorm — made it clear that worship Feb. 15 would be difficult if not impossible.

Instead, the congregation, whose history dates to 1796, logged in at for about 23 minutes of praising God together.

Severe winter weather has affected United Methodist churches across much of the United States for the past six weeks or so, particularly in the Northeast. To cope with the restrictions brought by snow, ice and plummeting temperatures, congregations have become creative about worship and have expanded community services to assist those left out in the cold.

At 73, the Rev. F. David Wells, pastor of East Douglas United Methodist Church in Massachusetts, has never missed more than one Sunday service anywhere. While it seemed necessary, he wrote in an email, to cancel on Ash Wednesday, the congregation is determined to gather this Sunday for a special baptism and “very large class meeting” for confirmation studies.

“Most of us are saying: ‘Let It snow! We have a great God to celebrate, and we can’t be held back from doing just that!’” he wrote.

Finding ways to worship

The Rev. Jay Williams, Union’s lead pastor, is from Buffalo, New York, so snow normally doesn’t bother him. But the fact that Boston, as of Feb. 16, has had 95.7 inches of snow — a foot short of the all-time record — does. “It really has been a frustrating winter and very challenging on many different levels,” he told United Methodist News Service.

The idea for worship via conference call first arose two years ago during the same week in the liturgical calendar, when Sunday worship and the Ash Wednesday service had to be cancelled “because we were in the same predicament,” Williams said.

With more notice this year, 75 people took part in last Sunday’s call, a little less than half who normally come to worship each week. After the abbreviated service, the pastor sent out an email with links to additional resources, including a sermon on YouTube by the church’s ministry intern, and the opportunity to make an online offering.

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This week, the congregation — whose members normally park on the street — is making special arrangements for a Sunday morning shuttle between the church and a parking garage about a half mile away.

“People are yearning to be reconnected,” Williams said. “For the last three weeks, we’ve had to cancel all of our Wednesday meetings.”

In Maine, alternatives to Sunday morning worship include services on Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon and Monday evening, reported the Rev. Beverly Stenmark, Mid-Maine district superintendent, in her newsletter. Others are using live streaming, emails with materials for home worship and Facebook events.

“I worshipped by live stream on Sunday morning and there were about 150 people from all through New England and even someone from Canada,” Stenmark wrote. “What a great opportunity!”

Offering extra help to others

Union is part of BostonWarm, a coalition of Boston’s religious leaders working on both a short- and long-term response, who care deeply about the October closing of a shelter that displaced more than 700 homeless individuals. The crisis became more urgent over the winter and BostonWarm currently is providing shelter at day centers in two downtown churches.

First United Methodist Church in Milford, Massachusetts, about 45 minutes southwest of Boston, has started ministering to people standing in line outside the Daily Bread Food Pantry next door.

The congregation opens its doors at 5 p.m. Tuesdays, said the Rev. Donna Schofield Dolle, pastor, so it can offer hot chocolate, bottled water or even a few minutes of warmth inside the church entry hall to those waiting for the pantry to open at 6 p.m. “Sometimes, we’ve stood in line to hold their place,” she added.

First Church Milford, which averages 40 to 50 in worship, also serves a community meal the last Thursday of the month and has taken on the responsibility of removing snow from the alley between the church building and food pantry to allow the food trucks to enter and unload.

When the Nashville, Tennessee, area was crippled by an unusual amount of snow and ice this week, United Methodist congregations were among those churches taking on guests for extra nights or even several days in cooperation with the Room in the Inn program.

Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, for example, hosted 14 homeless men for three days.

“We have such wonderful guests staying with us,” Allen Johnston told the Williamson Herald. “They are very appreciative and said that they wanted to give back to the church. They offered to shovel the church parking lot and clear the driveway.”

In Michigan, Central United Methodist Church in Traverse City extended the hours of its breakfast outreach last Sunday because of freezing temperatures.

Making a commitment

For Wesley United Methodist Church in Wesleyville, Pennsylvania — a small borough near Erie in the Lake Erie snowbelt — the harsh winter has been a time of discernment, commitment and patience.

As the area becomes more urban, with the accompanying problems of drug and alcohol addictions and inter-generational poverty, the congregation has been trying to define its role and calling, explained the Rev. Pam Gardner.

Last winter, a homeless man who set up camp in a field about a mile from the church froze to death. This year, in cooperation with the Mental Health Association of NW Pennsylvania, the Wesley Warming Center has been open since Jan. 15 “with very few days off.”

Each night, when the temperature drops below 25 degrees, four of 30 trained volunteers keep the warming center open from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

They know that the homeless are out there, Gardner said, but the church had been forewarned by the mental health association that it would take time to convince them to come. So far, only two people have sought shelter there, she added, and one already had frostbite. “That was sort of sobering for all of us.”

The church is looking for more ways to reach out. For example, cases of trenchfoot — a medical condition caused by prolonged exposure to damp, unsanitary and cold conditions — have been a problem because of wet socks, Gardner noted. On Feb. 20, an RV from a nearby hospital set up for the afternoon in Wesley’s parking lot, offering basic medical attention.

Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or [email protected]

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