How Bonnie and Clyde Helped Make Me a Methodist Preacher (or Getting to Know Your Community Can Transform Your Church)

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Wesley-Rankin Community Center

Bonnie and Clyde get a little credit for my seminary experience. The Depression Era gangsters got their start in Eagle Ford, a flood-prone neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. While they gained a lot of notoriety for their exploits, when they were killed by law enforcement agents in a Louisiana ambush in 1934, everyone recognized the tragedy of their lives. One Methodist lay woman, Hattie Rankin, reached out to Clyde Barrow’s mother and began a mission to the youth and children in Eagle Ford, which became the Wesley-Rankin Community Center. In 1989, the center hired a young seminarian from Virginia as their youth coordinator. (That was me.)

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Hattie Rankin

Methodists do great things when they get to know the communities they serve and respond to the needs. In Kincheloe, West Virginia, (a place that doesn’t often make the map), Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church recognized that children and youth in their area were hurting, something made visible in the death of a young man from a heroin overdose. 

According to an article on the West Virginia Annual Conference website, one lay member, Jennifer Paugh, asked herself “if anyone had ever invited this young man to church…if the church did enough for the kids in our community.” And because she was the Vacation Bible School coordinator, she thought, “If we had reached out to him…if he had attended even one VBS program…would he have turned to drugs?”

VBS was already a part of the ministry at Pleasant Valley, but they made four big changes in 2015:

  1. They shortened the time to 90 minutes.
  2. They moved it outside.
  3. They advertised on social media to get the word out, and
  4. They bought Pleasant Valley T-shirts with a scripture on them for every child.

Four years later they are expecting another summer of growth (over 137 last year) and have started many other youth outreach activities through the year. “ Even the smallest light can shine bright for Jesus,” Jennifer says, “even in Kincheloe.”

I’m encouraged when I see rural churches shining Christ’s light in their communities. We have churches here on the Eastern Shore that are reaching out in new ways, whether it’s Saint John’s young adult ministry, Grace Church’s Tuesdays in the Park, or the Fridays after Five Christmas-time witness of Trinity in Cape Charles. It reminds me of what I learned on the streets of Dallas.

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