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Murfreesboro United Methodist Church, led by Rev. Jason Villegas, has set out on a mission: to redefine their ministry and close the gap between the church and the community it serves in Hertford County. 

“The church is not just the building we find ourselves in, the church is a people,” says Villegas. “We ought to always be reaching out and connecting with the community around us, always being about the work of justice and charity and loving our neighbors as ourselves.” 

For Villegas and the Murfreesboro UMC congregation, their mission to redefine their ministry started when an English as a second language (ESL) program in the community was looking for space to hold the class. 

“We opened up the fellowship hall for classes,” says Villegas. “But it was around that time when we started working with the NC Rural Center—one thing led to another and we started to offer meals as opportunities for cross-cultural gatherings.” 

A Place at the Table/Un Sitio en la Mesa takes place on the first Friday of every month; the church fellowship is filled with English- and Spanish-speakers—once strangers separated by language—intermingling as neighbors and creating a bilingual community.

Murfreesboro UMC is part of the NC Rural Center’s Faith in Rural Communities initiative, a program that partners with rural churches throughout the state to assess their congregational assets and opportunities for community engagement. Funded by The Duke Endowment, Faith in Rural Communities helps to create high-impact projects that will benefit both the economic and social well-being of the communities the churches serve.

“One of my favorite things to do in ministry it to look through different lenses, and the Rural Center has offered us a really good sociological lens to look at Murfreesboro through,” says Villegas. “It was no surprise that this area has been shrinking since the 70s and there’s been some setbacks from that, but our time with the Rural Center has helped us build social capital and feed more people—emotionally, spiritually, and physically.”

A Place at the Table/Un Sitio en la Mesa often includes guest speakers from local institutions and organizations to talk about available resources and activities where community members can fellowship with each other. 

“We’re bringing in people from the community health center, the university, and the district attorney’s office so we can build better relationships and build social capital,” says Villegas. “And English- and Spanish-speakers alternate months cooking, so we receive from what everyone at the table has to offer. Building those local relationships with community partners has been a big focus.”  

The partnerships and bonds that Murfreesboro UMC and A Place at the Table/Un Sitio en la Mesa are forming have had a big impact in the community, says director of School-Based Health Services at the Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center and REDI alumna, Catherine Parker. 

“It’s important for places that are rural especially, because oftentimes we have a hard time with resources in the traditional sense,” says Parker. “But I think our greatest resource is our people, and when you connect so many people doing this great work across the community, you really amplify their reach.”

“The old paradigm for the church was just to offer what people needed, but the new paradigm—what we’re really trying to do now—is to appreciate what everyone in the community has to offer,” says Villegas. “There’s no better place to do that than across the dinner table.”