If you intended to attend Sunday morning worship at Park Terrace Community United Methodist Church in Apalachin, NY, on Sunday September 23, you arrived at the church to find that worship had been canceled. Large signs in the church’s front lawn informed you that the Church had left the building. What? It’s a nice place; why would they leave the building? You turn into the parking lot and it is full of cars. Maybe the signs are a joke? As you walk through the open church doors you find a lady in a bright red shirt sitting behind a table in the entryway. You hear sewing machines humming and dishes clinking. Babies are making noises down the hallway. A group of people are leaving the church. Noticing your confusion, the lady in the red shirt explains that instead of worship service, the congregation has decided to have community service. The church is still being used, but the Church has left the building.
On her table are a list of projects: yard cleanup, handicap ramp building, home rehabilitation, child care, sewing walker bags for a local nursing home, visiting nursing homes, feed-the-hungry, planting a flagpole garden at a fire station, baking cookies, painting, and a bottle drive. So much for remembering the sabbath and keeping it holy.
But wait—aren’t these services holy too? Does holiness occur in only church sanctuaries? The Pharisees confronted Jesus with a similar question regarding proper observation of the sabbath, to which he replied, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12, NRSV).
One hundred and one Park Terrace congregation members tried to help pull sheep out of a pit on Sunday September 23. From 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. the Church was cooking breakfast or pounding nails or sorting bottles or listening to an elder’s story. The Church was sawing wood or removing brush or painting a shed or cleaning out gutters or watering plants. The Church was mixing dough or threading needles or washing dishes. The Church was earning its capital C.
The ramp and home rehab projects began the Saturday before. Along with the yard cleanup, these opportunities were discovered through a local agency called Tioga Opportunities. Cooking for the free weekly breakfast at First Methodist in Endicott, NY, began at 7:30 a.m. Breakfast was served at 8:30. According to Jan Borrows, weekly organizer and member of First Methodist, about thirty to fifty people a week attend. Most people who attend the meal work full time, but the income they earn is not enough to support themselves or their families. Jan sees the breakfasts as a chance to put words into actions, her aim being to “feed their souls and feed their stomachs.”
The yard cleanup project was being done for a lifelong firefighter who, due to health problems, could no longer perform maintenance. This was the day’s largest task, with brush removal, gutter cleaning, tree limb removal, and lawn care. When I asked seventh grader Stephen Lewis, who was helping with the yard cleanup, what he thought about canceling worship, he said he was okay with it. He explained: “I got to skip church to cut stuff up.” But he returned to heart of the matter by also saying, “I think Jesus would be proud of us.”
Back at the church groups were busy baking cookies for soldiers and jailed youth, sewing walker bags for local nursing homes. Others were donating their time offering child care. Another group was sorting bottles collected from a bottle drive. The bottle drivers were raising money to train landmine sniffing dogs to help rid Angola of its many landmines. This project is supported by UMCOR, and you can get more information by visiting http://gbgm-umc.org/UMCOR/emergency/landmines.stm.
Two groups visited nursing homes during the day. Another group painted a rundown shed. Another group helped serve dinner at the Salvation Army, and another planted a flagpole garden at a local fire station. The night ended with a gathering at the church at 7:00 p.m., during which the day’s stories were told, hymns were sung, and ice cream was eaten. At the day’s end, calluses nursed, cookies packaged, structures built, Park Terrace went home knowing they kept the sabbath holy.