Radio church for senior living facility
By Lindsay Peyton
St. John’s UMC Texas City and assisted living facility Elmcroft of the Mainland are neighbors, so close that the congregation could wave to residents. “They’re right next store,” Senior Pastor, the Rev. Stephanie Hughes said. Still, the two had never worshipped together. That is, until COVID-19 shook everything up. “It changed the game,” Hughes said.
Before the pandemic, church members would play games with Elmcroft residents and sing carols for the seniors at Christmas. There was even a Bible study the congregation hosted.
Other denominations also visited Elmcroft, Hughes explained. “That’s why we didn’t step in too strongly,” she said.
When COVID-19 hit, however, the assisted living facility shut down completely. Residents were isolated from their loved ones. “Their lives were closed off,” Hughes said.
At the same time, St. John’s was shutting down its sanctuary. “And we were looking for new ways to worship,” Hughes said.
In conversations with other churches, she learned about parking lot ministries and decided to give it a test drive. “You get a low frequency radio transmitter, and soon I’m preaching on the back of a truck,” Hughes recalled.
Church volunteers Pat Fletcher and David McKnight took care of the technology. “Whenever we dream, they make it possible,” Hughes said.
Members honk horns as amens
She thought a couple of members might show up. “I was really surprised,” she said. “Half of our congregation turned out faithfully to worship and wave at each other. They would honk their horns as an amen.”
Hughes was even more surprised at what happened next. Low frequency radios are limited in reach to a certain radius, and that included Elmcroft. She called to let them know.
“At 10:30 a.m., we will be on the radio,” she told the assisted living facility.
“And they started tuning in,” she said.
Before long, the church would drop off communion elements to the senior assisted living center. When they created a take-home bags for special occasions, members would also bring them next door, including a vial of ashes for Ash Wednesday.
“Every Sunday, we would do a shout out, ‘Welcome to those of you on the radio and those at Elmcroft,’” Hughes said.
Members would honk their horns in the parking lot, so Elmcroft residents knew they were appreciated. Later, Hughes learned from a representative at the assisted living center that the seniors would raise their hands and rejoice in response.
When Easter arrived, Hughes asked the congregation for volunteers to stuff eggs. Elmcroft heard her loud and clear.
“We got a call, ‘Our people want to help. Please bring the eggs, and how soon can you do it?’” Hughes recalled. “They would stuff the eggs within a matter of hours.”
The church designed the Easter egg hunt so that Elmcroft could watch from their campus. “You could see them peeking out from their doors,” Hughes said. “I encouraged families to go over and wave.”
At that moment, the pastor knew, that the relationship had changed. “It was more than it ever was before,” she said.
Hughes decided to make the radio transmission permanent. When the congregation returned to the building for worship, new cable was installed and the transmitter placed outside.
“Every Sunday, we still say, Good morning Elmcroft,” Hughes explained. “We’re still connected. And when they open, we will be there.”
COVID-19 has taught the church to be a more intentional neighbor, she said. “It definitely opened our eyes in a way,” she added.
The parking lot sermons and the blossoming relationship with Elmcroft spoke to Hughes about the need for community. “In quarantine, we were all so cut off from each other,” she said. “Even though we couldn’t see each other face-to-face, we were still together.”
She also witnessed a true desire to be with a church family. “We need that spiritual connection,” she said. “It’s not about the building. It’s relational connection.”
COVID-19 forced innovation, Hughes explained. “It just got us out of a rut,” she said. “Our ruts blind us.”
That’s what led the church to creating more of a digital presence and a radio ministry. “This opportunity right next door was deeper and more meaningful than we even knew,” she said,
Everything St. John’s learned during the pandemic will be carried into its future. “That’s why we made our radio permanent,” Hughes said. “We’re thinking of revisiting our parking lot ministry as a tailgate. All of it, will move forward, and we’ll build on it. We will be a mixture. We will be both and. We’ll be something different and stronger, because of what we went through.”
A clearer connection with Elmcroft is a gift, she added. “We really stumbled on a ministry that works, that is helpful and that is a blessing,” she said.