response: January/February 2021 Issue

A Creative, Supportive Fellowship

United Methodist Women members at First United Methodist Church 
in Santa Rosa, California, uplift the marginalized and one another.

A Creative, Supportive Fellowship
Distributing dinners for unsheltered people at First United Methodist Church.

Diane Jackson has been a member of United Methodist Women for more than 50 years. She grew up Presbyterian but joined The United Methodist Church in her early twenties. She became a part of United Methodist Women because her mother and grandmother were active in their church’s women’s group, and she knew it would be a place she could find learning and support. She is currently the president of United Methodist Women at First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, California.

Jackson, who is also head of the church’s Volunteers in Mission Program, was put into a leadership role right away.

“The first Sunday I came to church I asked, ‘Do you have a women’s group?’ And I was directed to a real go-getter lady,” Jackson said. “I went to their Christmas tea, and she asked me if I was new. I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘We have a position on our board that you can fill.’ I left that first meeting part of the United Methodist Women’s leadership team.” Jackson has also served on district leadership teams and started several young women’s circles.

United Methodist Women at First Santa Rosa supports local social agencies with time and funds, and it hosts fellowship-event fundraisers for Pledge to Mission to support women, children and youth around the world. Members also participate in the Reading Program and host educational forums. The church has a heart for people who are unsheltered, and several of the local organizations supported by the five circles of United Methodist Women at First Santa Rosa provide homeless outreach, including the church’s own Spirit Café, which hosts weekly community meals.

“Our Tuesday night Spirit Café ministry connects with about 100 to 150 homeless folks each week,” explained Lindsey Bell-Kerr, the church’s pastor of mission and outreach. “Prior to COVID-19, we came together in the fellowship hall and had dinner around tables, sat together, had a celebrate-recovery-style worship service after. Since this time of quarantine, we’ve had to go toward brown bag meal distribution in the parking lot.

“The most important thing right now for me is maintaining connections and staying in touch with the unsheltered folks with whom we’ve had prior relationships.”

Jackson’s son experienced homelessness on and off for many years. She knows there is no easy way out of the cycle, and she knows the barriers to finding housing can often be insurmountable.

“But you just keep hoping,” she said. “Every time you say, maybe this time he’ll make it. Maybe this decision will be better. But homelessness is a combination of problems. It’s never just one thing.”

Jackson appreciates the community aspect of Spirit Café. It provides a space for people to break bread together and get to know one another. Relationships change when people become friends, she said.

“I think not only the food is important but the relationships that are formed. And the people that work regularly on Tuesday night get to know the unsheltered that are there almost every week. They’re not only providing food, they’re providing mental support and friendship and a place where people can come and feel comfortable and know that they’re welcomed.”

Building relationships

Adi Mere Nabou’s passion is homeless outreach. A United Methodist Women member at First Santa Rosa, she gets up at 4 a.m. on her Tuesday to cook to make sandwiches for bagged meals.

“We make around 300 sandwiches,” Nabou said. “Two hundred are a regular chicken salad, and then the rest of it is vegetarian. We also pack bags with fruits, potato chips and two boiled eggs.”

She and her husband, Bill, make the chicken themselves. Her son Wilisoni also helps with cooking and packing, and she’s happy to see her passion for service reflected in her son.

When they are done cooking and packing the bags, they say a prayer.

“We just sit back and praise God. It’s so satisfying. We pray and say, ‘Thank you, Lord, that you are going to nourish and for each and every one receiving that little bag.’”

When Nabou moved to Santa Rosa she began making a few meals for people living at a nearby park. It wasn’t long before she was making 20 meals. She began volunteering her Fridays at a nearby shelter, and soon after she joined in at the Spirit Café.

“It just kept burning in me,” she said.

Nabou, who works as a caregiver, joined United Methodist Women when she joined First Santa Rosa. She offered to drive fellow members to a district training event, and she’s been hooked ever since. She’s now Los Rios District president, vice president of the California-Nevada Fijian Language United Methodist Women, Mission u dean and a member of the conference Charter for Racial Justice team.

“The more I got into it, the more I got hooked into the passion of United Methodist Women,” she said.

Inspired by that first drive, Nabou spoke to Jackson about bringing the Fijian language ministry and the United Methodist Women closer together. She calls Jackson an “amazing woman of leadership” and a “doer.”

“She’s the doer. She’s not just the president—she’s the doer. She does it all, tries to help out and make things work.”

Jackson in turn praises Nabou’s spirit and commitment.

“I think it’s a great thing she’s doing. You wouldn’t find me out there at six in the morning, making coffee and greeting the people as they come out of the shelter,” Jackson said, laughing, referring to Nabou’s ministry she calls Warming Heart, bringing morning coffee to folks standing in line for a shower at shelters in town.

Just as members of Santa Rosa’s United Methodist Women build relationships with their unsheltered neighbors, they also build relationships with one another.

“Walking into United Methodist Women,” Nabou said, “they were always uplifting, they would share. They would sit and listen and say, ‘Oh great, we want to know more.’ That was a big thing. ‘We would love to know more about Fiji and your culture.’”

Nabou also credits Mission u and Assembly for continuing to inspire her ministry and her passion for United Methodist Women.

Growing together

Peg Ferrel also attended Assembly, in St. Louis in 2010. She’s been a member of United Methodist Women at Santa Rosa since 2003.

“Listening to everybody from around the world who was there sing together and pray together and help one another” is what Ferrel named as one of her favorite parts of Assembly. “And I bought a prayer shawl, homemade by somebody else in some other part of the world. And every time I wear it, whether I’m just chilly or whether I’m wanting to pray with it, it’s another part of somebody else caring for me. And the concept of United Methodist Women caring for women and children around the world is a wonderful thing.”

Ferrel, too, believes in relationships and community-building. She is cook organizer for Spirit Café and has been the United Methodist Women treasurer for many years.

“I was the youngest person in my first United Methodist Women meeting,” Ferrel said. “So that was a little scary. But I thought, okay, good. There’s room for growth here, there’s room to change things. I was encouraged by the older women to hang in there with them, and they loved me and they guided me, and it was a wonderful relationship, and it still is today.”

When Ferrel first joined First Santa Rosa she was excited to get involved with the church’s activities. Spirit Café drew her in right away, and she loved that it was a place where people could eat and worship together and get to know one another and God in new ways. She and her husband, Mike, whom she calls “the man behind the scenes,” soon became core members of the Spirit Café team.When the pandemic hit, Spirit Café was one of the activities Ferrel missed most.

“I wasn’t around my Tuesday night Spirit Café friends, those guests that mean so much to me,” she said.

Despite being in an age group particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, she, against her pastor’s wishes, came back on Tuesdays to help.

“We couldn’t have a lot of talking or congregating because of the distancing rules and sheltering in place,” Ferrel said. “But I realized when I got home, I

felt one hundred percent better that day. I wasn’t depressed anymore. I thought, oh, my gosh, it’s because my friends were with me! I was with them!”

Faith and advocacy

Another Spirit Café volunteer is Zoe Valrey. Now 21, she’s been volunteering at Spirit Café since she was in 6th grade. Valrey celebrated her most recent birthday by making dinner with her family for Spirit Café. She’s been an active member at First Santa Rosa since playing baby Jesus in a Christmas play. Ferrel was her Sunday school teacher.

Valrey thanks her mother and grandparents for helping instill the value of volunteering and contributing to her community, and she sees how women like Ferrel live out their faith through service and outreach—and by being a friend.

“It’s great to see Peg interact with unsheltered people. She is so natural and welcoming and has no fear, no bias, and she is just so happy and welcoming,” Valrey said.”

For Valrey, faith means partnering service with advocacy. She is a sociology student also studying criminal justice and Black studies. She cooks and distributes meals at Spirit Café while learning more about the systems that cause homelessness in the first place. She plans to become a social worker and work to reform the injustices she sees in the U.S. criminal justice system.

In September 2020, she and Bell-Kerr got up early to be present at a police eviction of an encampment at Fremont Park in Santa Rosa.

Fremont Park, according to Bell-Kerr, is an infrequently used and often vacant park in downtown Santa Rosa. It was an ideal location, they said, for an encampment, because residents are in their own space but close to services and bathrooms and other people. Then residents received word that they had one week to relocate.

One week is not a long time to be given to move, especially with no destination and no access to a vehicle. Bell-Kerr explained that if police force those without shelter to move, they are required by law to offer a second living location, but the number of unsheltered people in Santa Rosa exceeds the number of beds available in the shelter system.

Valrey, Bell-Kerr and other advocates arrived around 5:30 a.m. to help on eviction day. At about 12:45 the city showed up in Hazmat suits with construction equipment and a tractor and gathered people’s possessions and abandoned homes and threw them into a dumpster.

Valrey said she was happy to help, to be there for people who needed her and to listen to them, but the experience was hard.

“In general the experience was really sad for me,” she said. “I just felt a lot of sorrow. It was really clear that they were really sad and scared and not knowing what their next move was.”

She sees God in everyone being together and helping one another. To hear someone say “God bless you” as they’re being evicted from their home, she said, is a spiritual moment.

“I definitely see God there.”

Valrey is biracial and knows what it’s like to live as a Black woman in the United States. It wasn’t until Bell-Kerr preached about Trayvon Martin that Valrey saw advocacy as part of her faith.

“Today I absolutely do feel a connection between my faith and advocacy work,” she said. “There is a huge problem within our justice system. I don’t think of the criminal justice system without thinking of the Black community. I think about how it affects me and my people. Institutional racism is what this country was built on.”

Ferrel is a big fan of Valrey’s. She’s encouraged to see the next generation focusing on racial justice, as United Methodist Women has done for more than 100 years.

“Being a part of her life has been wonderful,” Ferrel said. “And I’m encouraging her to do more.”

Valrey appreciates the support and suggests that United Methodist Women members of an older generation take the time to listen to the younger generation.

“I think the best way to learn what people my age and my generation are experiencing with racism is just to listen and try to understand and ask questions, because we’d so much rather you ask questions than assume,” Valrey said, suggesting that sometimes the best way to support the work of racial justice is to follow the lead of young people of color.

Surrounded by love

Before First Santa Rosa, Bell-Kerr was a mission intern with the General Board of Global Ministries. Then and now they’ve felt surrounded and loved by United Methodist Women, especially through the cards and letters sent by United Methodist Women members thanks to the Prayer Calendar. Santa Rosa is Bell-Kerr’s first appointment, and they’re grateful for the continuing support of United Methodist Women.

“I continue to be inspired by Adi Nabou’s commitment to service. Diane Jackson is someone who welcomed me when I first arrived. I was really nervous and scared about how I would engage with folks, and Diane Jackson just sort of welcomed me as a member of the family,” Bell-Kerr said. “She makes space for people to be themselves. And working with Peg Ferrel is arguably one of the best parts about being appointed at First United Methodist Church. She reminds me that what we are to offer unsheltered people is not just what we would want but a step above what we would expect. She is extravagant in her love and care.”

United Methodist Women members at First United Methodist Church of Santa Rosa take seriously the United Methodist Women Purpose’s call to be a creative, supportive fellowship. They are committed to uplifting the marginalized in their church and around the world.

“United Methodist Women is an excellent place to challenge women of all ages to push themselves into things they don’t think they can do,” Jackson said. “The structure is such that you’ve got the support around you and you’ve got the resources to help you know what to do. It’s just been very enriching in my life.”

Nile Sprague is a photojournalist based in Santa Rosa, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 1/12/2021 12:00:00 AM