Education activist and former mayor transforms UMC sanctuary into virtual learning center
By Lindsay Peyton
Even though the coronavirus forced Newman Chapel UMC in Kendleton to go virtual, the congregation still found a way to continue serving the community. Instead of opening its doors for worship on Sundays, the congregation welcomed students to study in its sanctuary, Monday through Fridays for months. The church turned into a school for a number of months. Those students are now returning to their classrooms, without having any gaps in their education. Better still, they knew they had the love and support of their congregation.
Newman Chapel moved online in March, right after COVID-19. Pastor Curtis Johnson, a resident of Missouri City, explained that the small congregation with mostly older members quickly adapted to Zoom, Facebook Live and conference calls as their new form of worship.
Still, Johnson is a firm believer that church should not be confined inside its doors. “I’ve been praying for the church to be more active, meeting the needs of the community,” he said. “So much of what we were doing was internally focused. It was what we had always done, and we expected everyone to come to us.”
Johnson prefers the church to meet individuals where they are. For the three years he has served as pastor, he added an annual service in the park in the spring, a Harvest Fest in the fall and puppet shows for VBS.
“We’ve been trying to do things to attract folks who normally don’t come to church and identify the needs are in the community,” he said.
With the coronavirus closing down normal church operations, Johnson felt it was even more imperative to focus on outreach. Before long, an opportunity to help presented itself.
During a virtual Bible study on Wednesday, Johnson asked congregants to pray for the youth who would be returning to school in September and to consider a way they could help.
Then, the pastor learned that a few of the children in his congregation would be staying home and attending class virtually. “And some of the young men at the church were having trouble with virtual learning, because they did not have access to WiFi,” he explained.
Lay leader Carolyne Jones had a solution. “The children could come to the church, connect to the WiFi and still do their school work,” she said.
She even volunteered to arrive every morning at 8 a.m. to stay with the students all day. “I had my mask and hand sanitizer,” she said. “And we had plenty of room for distance in our sanctuary.”
Jones has a passion for helping youth in the community thrive at school. She served for about two decades as a substitute teacher. For the past two years, she launched a program during the summer to prevent the summer slide, or the learning lost over the months of vacation. Johnson also works with area judges to develop resources to help youth stay on the right track, and she regularly travels to Austin to advocate for an end to the school to prison pipeline.
Jones is a former mayor of the city of Kendleton, where the church is located. With a population of about 400, the town sits southwest of Houston, in Fort Bend County.
In the 1860s, former slaves built Kendleton, buying plots of William E. Kendall’s plantation. In the 1890s, the town had about 25 residents, a general store and two churches, one being Methodist.
Jones is proud to be a fourth-generation resident of Kendleton. Her family included some of the first landowners and settlers in the city. Her grandparents and parents were active in the community. “The mantle, I guess, I picked up,” she said with a laugh.
Johnson said her commitment to helping the church’s children was commendable. “Mrs. Jones was the spearhead on this,” he added. “She took it on herself.”
A handful of students came to the church each day. Tables were placed at a proper distance for the children to use, and volunteers helped them stay focused on their studies.
Church members purchased headsets for the students so they would not disturb each other while virtually attending class. Volunteers also brought them snacks. Jones connected with Lamar Consolidated ISD to ensure that communication would go without a hitch.
“It all worked out pretty good,” Jones said. “It kept the children from getting behind in their classes.”
In fact, Johnson said the parents check in regularly with the church and have shared their children’s success in school. “We’ve been getting reports, and the kids were able to maintain their grades and even excel,” the pastor explained.
The experience was fulfilling, Jones said. “The parents still thank me all the time,” she added. “When the children would leave at the end of the day, they would say, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Jones.’ You can do something good to help, and that’s rewarding.”
That’s a lesson that she hopes to continue sharing with the students, even now that they are back in their regular classrooms. Currently, she is brainstorming plans for Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, which is Monday, Jan. 18. “We want to help them understand that giving back is important,” she said.
Dr. King was a shining example, she explained, of the significance of serving the community and speaking up for what is right.
Jones is also a role model for the youth, as she finds ways to help from volunteering to advocating in Austin, even at age 82, her pastor said.
Johnson believes that the church also has a critical role to play in serving residents. “It’s important that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus,” he said.
Faith is not only about salvation, the pastor explained. “Jesus says, I’ve come here to preach the good news to the poor,” Johnson added, quoting Luke.
Christ is the ultimate example of how to dedicate your life to help those in need, Johnson continued. “That’s what he calls on us to do – to serve others,” he said. “Being a small congregation, we try to move quickly if someone has a need. We find out about it and say, ‘Let’s be there for people.’”
Newman Chapel continues to search for new ways to be a rock for residents. “We’re been challenging ourselves, How can we help? We’ve been trying to live out our faith,” Johnson said. “God is still faithful -- even in these times – and can help us reach people.”