response: May/June 2021

A Place to Turn

United Methodist Women-supported national mission institutions 
bend with challenges but do not break, remaining reliable sources 
of help and hope for their communities.

A Place to Turn
Camper Maddie Kannady gets help preparing to ride a zip line at United Methodist Women-supported Camp Aldersgate in Little Rock, Arkansas.

For a few months this past year, every day the mail delivered hundreds of masks from all over the country to Cornerstone Family Ministries in Tampa, Florida. More than 10,000 mostly hand-sewn masks were donated to Cornerstone this past winter to help keep its community safe from the spread of COVID-19. True to form, United Methodist Women members were the first to give to the historic United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution.

Across the country, United Methodist Women members are in sisterhood and solidarity with national mission institutions. Cornerstone is one of the approximately 90 centers that United Methodist Women members support through gifts of money and time.

For more than a century, many of these former settlement houses and community centers founded by United Methodist Women predecessors have served as safe havens, places for a volunteer or deaconess to serve as the one “who helps the needy, who cares for the distressed and orphan,” as Mrs. George Robinson, secretary of the Deaconess Department of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society, put it in 1899.

Cornerstone supports 150 small child-care centers with a mission to nourish young bodies, develop young minds and connect children to the body of Christ, providing hope in times of trouble. Like Cornerstone, many of the United Methodist Women-related institutions provide child care, a need that has increased during the pandemic, as has the cost of operating the building safely. The staff and clients have had to find creative and strategic ways to remain self-sustaining and adapt to the changing landscape.

Hortense Tyrell, director of national and international ministries for United Methodist Women, calls the partnership a “deep connection.” She marvels at the institutions and their “flexibility and agility in quickly shifting programs to respond to the new needs caused by the coronavirus.” Tyrell says, “They are bent by the strain, but they are not broken.”

Continuing ministries

Another national mission institution that offers child care is the Bethlehem Centers in Nashville, Tennessee. Steve Fleming, chief executive officer, grew up in Bethlehem Centers of Nashville some 40 years ago. He agrees that the demand for Bethlehem’s services have only multiplied over the last year. Although schools have closed, families continue to rely on the afterschool programs, not just for continuing a child’s education but for a hot, nutritious meal and much-needed socialization after months of isolation. With safety protocols in place, such as social distancing, the center operates at half the capacity, with nearly twice the cost.

Like many national mission institutions, Bethlehem caters to many ages of people in the neighborhood. In addition to meeting the needs of young people, Bethlehem caters to the homebound and the homeless. Many volunteers, including United Methodist Women members, are supplying food, companionship and household necessities to neighbors. While delivering Meals on Wheels, volunteers have provided toilet paper, paper towels and cleaning supplies, but, most significantly, Fleming noted that the deliveries provide human contact.

“We can keep an eye on the homebound,” he said.

Fleming expressed gratitude for the material gifts and financial donations from United Methodist Women, which “keep the lights on and the water running.” He also asks for continued prayer.

“That sustains us. Continued devout prayer leads to continued success.”

Shesler Hall in Sioux City, Iowa, began as a home for women and presently serves women in crisis. Shesler Hall was founded in 1901 as a home for deaconesses who served people entrenched in poverty in Sioux City. The deaconess movement of the late 19th century was birthed in Europe and came to the United States. Many present-day national mission institutions began as schools to train deaconesses, women who dedicated their lives to their work as teachers, preachers, nurses and community leaders. At a time when women’s identity came from their relationships as wives or mothers, deaconesses lived independently and fully committed to serving people whom society had forgotten. In return for their independence, the deaconesses were educated and cared for in their retirement by United Methodist Women (or our predecessor groups), a promise still upheld today.

Many of these schools and settlement homes evolved into present-day national mission institutions, still serving people entrenched in poverty, children needing schooling, immigrants seeking shelter and women in crisis.

During the pandemic, many women have struggled to receive the mental health care they need. The women who live in Shesler Hall arrived from alcohol and drug rehab centers, prisons and hospitals, and they have found solace and safety in a home, some for the first time.

Maintaining Shesler Hall’s housing has been costly. Director Kris Dam credits the government paycheck protection program as a life preserver during the pandemic. United Metho-dist Women members give too. While visitors are not presently allowed into the home, women continued to drop off meals or order pizza for the women.

The mission of building community

Just as Dam, the Rev. Schrendreia Robinson leads a women’s home. Killingsworth, located in Columbia, South Carolina, is another national mission institution where women find sanctuary from hopelessness, homelessness, addiction and mental health crises. One challenge during COVID-19 has been the women’s inability to attend in-person therapy appointments; virtual appointments and online technology proved daunting. It was then that a donor generously gifted the services of a full-time dedicated mental health counselor to Killingsworth. The counselor also made time to serve the staff, who, like the residents, were experiencing anxiety and loneliness due to the virus. In fact, Robinson was grateful to have a place to vent as she found herself juggling homeschooling her three young sons as well as continuing to lead Killingsworth.

Since the early days of the pandemic, Robinson has shepherded the home into upgrades to the women’s technology, which is especially important for the women in recovery in order to attend their regular Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Another positive outcome for the Killingsworth women, required to stay at home during the pandemic, was expanding downtime beyond television. With the purchase of board games, coloring books, jigsaw puzzles and Sudoku games, the staff found that the women began to relax and enjoy time with one another. Since the beginning of the quarantine, the majority of women in Killingsworth who had lost their jobs, mostly in the hospitality industry, have been able to return to work.

In Utica, New York, at the Neighborhood Center, another national mission institution, the center is meeting the needs of diverse families, children, adults with mental illness and people in crisis. The center found the cost of COVID-19 taking a toll. Cleaning the facilities and providing personal protective equipment became expensive. Hidden costs, such as replacing the heating and cooling system vents, far exceeded the amount budgeted.

Sandra Soroka, executive director at the Neighborhood Center, reports that despite the financial struggles, the mission of building community remains strong. Reflecting on the long history of the center, Soroko marveled at what the founders from 1905 would think today.

“They would be absolutely amazed that an organization of six missionary workers now employs 200 workers,” she said.

Soroka explains the rationale for the work: “To help individuals help themselves and to overcome racial and poverty disparity.” One way the center advocates for justice is through their Circles work, wherein an individual at the hub of a family circle, usually a mother, moves her family out of entrenched poverty through initiating allies, education and self-advocacy.

The two pillars

Achieving justice is one of two pillars on which United Methodist Women hopes to build the national mission institutions as they move into this 21st century. The other pillar is to engage United Methodist Women members through service and learning. Both pillars—justice and membership—emphasize a with and not a for mentality.

The mutual benefit for helping one another and reaching a more just world is at the core of the national mission institutions. According to Jessica Tulloch, executive for national ministries of United Methodist Women, the institutions that have survived and even thrived during this pandemic are those that have responded to community needs.

Cathy Capo Stone, executive director at Cornerstone in Tampa, described a recent time the center responded to the community using the two pillars of antiracism work and engagement with United Methodist Women.

“When George Floyd was murdered, that hit our community very hard. We needed to have the conversations internally.” Cornerstone made an antiracism action plan.

This plan invited United Methodist Women into the conversation, specifically with regard to the books that were donated to the book drive. More than passively requesting multicultural books, the Cornerstone community insisted that the books have an antiracist message and reflect the children whom Cornerstone serves.

“We needed to see families, heroes and struggles that look like the children,” Stone said.

The books poured in from the United Methodist Women Reading Program.

Just as with the masks, Stone says, “United Methodist Women: They were our heroes! They were the ones who could do the work that we needed. It was so exciting to see their enthusiasm. They did for us what no one else could.”

In fact, Stone reported that when some of the packages containing the protective masks were received, some of the handwritten cards showed shaky penmanship but the stitching keeping the masks together was straight, strong and solid.

“Sometimes I would just weep. It’s been such a blessing,” said Stone.

Cornerstone, Shesler Hall, Killingsworth, Neighborhood Center and Bethlehem Centers are just some of the national mission institutions where you will find your time, prayer and Mission Giving, stitching together the fabric of healing at a time like no other, when the world is in need of so much love.

Mary Beth Coudal is a writer and teacher in New York City.

Posted or updated: 5/3/2021 12:00:00 AM