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Connecting community through Faith

The COVID-19 pandemic upended much of the way we live our lives—how we learn, how we shop—and it did not leave faith communities out of its sphere of influence. In rural areas across the state, churches and other centers of worship aren’t just a building where people congregate a few times a week, they are the vital hub of human connection in their communities.

Faith in Rural Communities works with rural United Methodist churches (UMC) across North Carolina, helping them assess local needs and leverage existing congregational resources to better address the pressing challenges of the communities they serve. Participating churches go through a nine-month curriculum designed to encourage collaboration and strategic thinking about how they can be active in community development and long-term resilience.

Working to Build a Stronger Community

For First United Methodist Church in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, their strong relationship with the neighboring Mt. Lebanon African Episcopal Methodist Zion (AMEZ) church and the overall diversity of the town’s population was something they saw as an existing strength in their community.

“It occurred to us that Elizabeth City is racially diverse, but coffee houses and other places in the community were not as heterogeneous. People were still isolated even as they were together,” said Rev. Benny Oakes, First UMC pastor. “During our coaching sessions, we found ourselves not only asking ‘what is happening’ but ‘why is this happening.'” Oakes said that the team from First UMC started thinking about what they could do to bring together community members to create a space that reflected the racial diversity of Elizabeth City and could become a heterogeneous space where new connections and relationships could form.

Oakes was preaching at First UMC prior to starting in the Faith and Rural Communities program; he and Rev. Javan Leach, the pastor at Mt. Lebanon AMEZ, moved to Elizabeth City around the same time and built a friendship between themselves and their congregations. “Prior to the pandemic, we were hosting monthly dinners and started building surface-level relationships, but then we got into the deeper questions,” said Oakes. Around the table, attending community members began talking about when they realized race was a “thing.”

“There was a big contrast between the stories our white community members shared compared to the deep wounds and hurts shared by our African American brothers and sisters,” said Oakes. The two pastors continued to host and explore these conversations, up until conditions around the pandemic made it unsafe to gather—but they found that people still craved those connections. As a part of Faith in Rural Communities, First UMC is not only working on making this community space more accessible and more representative of the racial and economic diversity in Elizabeth City, but finding a way to do it safely as the pandemic persists.

“Building a more connected community is going to be long-haul work,” says Oakes. “Structural racism and classism has left deep wounds that have barely even scarred over because they still hurt. So we’re asking ourselves what we can do to make any kind of impact on a deep wound that’s been open for a long period of time.”

Oakes recognizes that the community won’t change overnight, and it won’t change just by creating a space where people can come together and have tough conversations about race. “Humanity has treated itself crummy, and as a whole we have not been great at treating each other as image-bearers of Christ,” he says. “But our hope is that if we stay committed to this work, all of us will change and have different expectations for what a community can and should be.”

When community members are connected, share resources and knowledge, and make space to create the trust and relationships to bring their ideas to the table, they can truly begin to solve engrained hardships—and that’s the real impact of the Faith in Rural Communities program at the Center.

Learn more about Faith in Rural Communities here.