There is a group of young, idealistic United Methodist Church (UMC) ministers in Birmingham who believe that churches should be more than mere buildings and that church congregations should be deeply involved in helping to make their communities stronger and healthier.
That’s part of the reason why several UMC congregations are inviting everyone in Birmingham – not just other Methodists or even other church goers – to take part in a Sunday afternoon of volunteer projects in Birmingham called “The Magic City Miracle.”
Volunteers in this day of service are to meet at Railroad Park downtown on September 30 at noon and travel in teams to the projects they’re pre-registered for online.
There will be projects at sites in the city and beyond, including repair work for non-profits, neighborhood clean-ups, tornado recovery work, planting community gardens, preparing meals for shelters and many others.
“We are prepared for about 800 to 900 volunteers at about 70 different mission sites, so we’re talking about thousands of people directly benefiting from this work,” said Julie Holly, senior pastor,
Discovery UMC in Hoover. The original “Magic City Miracle” project partners were Discovery, Avondale,Highlands, St. Junia and Liberty Crossings UMCs.
Organizers say that local businesses, non-profits and the city of Birmingham, including the mayor’s office, have also been involved.
“The scope is unparalleled and, to my knowledge, this is a first-of-a-kind event for the church to bring together the city, local churches and non-profits together in one event,” according to Liberty Crossings pastor Wade Griffith. “And it is a secular project. What we’re doing is getting out there and helping people. We are not pushing some religious agenda. To have the church to be a unifying force of our city – the media, local business, city government, all together – that is unprecedented.”
The organizers see the Miracle – a large, highly publicized iteration of the volunteer work that the congregations at many Methodist and other local churches do year-round– as a good chance for churches to get beyond their own sanctuary walls and into the community.
“I’m a deacon in the Methodist Church, and one of the definitions found in the Book Of Discipline for that is being a bridge from the church to the world and the world to the church, so my hope is that this is what [will happen] that day,” said Deb Welsh, director of serving ministries at Highlands UMC.
The Miracle is one way “to get beyond thinking of church solely as a building or institution and think of it as a community of people that are engaged in their community,” saidHighlandssenior pastor Mikah Hudson.
Organizers also hope the Miracle will serve as a starting point for people to volunteer on a regular basis with the non-profits and community groups they encounter that day. “It’s all relationship-driven,”Griffithsaid. “You tell somebody to volunteer and their eyes glass over, but they go somewhere and meet a woman who had her arm broken because her husband beat her, and you meet her kids who are the same age as your kids, and your life is linked to her life, and you are changed and you are committed.”
The Miracle may help improve the image of churches among young people and other groups who are reluctant to attend church and are skeptical of traditional religion. “The churches get so much bad press about being hateful and judgmental, that we hope this will show that the churches are really invested in people’s lives and want to improve people’s lives,” Holly said.
And there’s a lot of people who neither have nor want a connection with the church because they associate it with traditional worship services and being called a sinner, according to Brandon Harris, pastor at Avondale UMC. “We want to show them that there is more to church than just coming and sitting, that God called us to do some great things in the world and to be agents of transformation and hope,” he said.
Griffithsaid he understands why religious engagement is said to be at what he called “a historic low” among 20- and 30-somethings. “When I see images of church and religion in the media it makes me not want to be a part [of it], and I’m a pastor,” he said. “Blood sells newspapers, but an event like this shows who we really are.”
Griffithcites the many faith groups who have helped with such tasks as storm relief and feeding the hungry. He says that the church “is not just the demagogues on TV,” adding, “The average believers are the people who are helping people. The 20-somethings and 30-somethings need to see who the church really is. It’s not some knucklehead saying that 9/11 was a punishment for homosexuality inAmerica.”
Organizers say that many of the young people in churches are drawn to service work. “People in their early 30s and in their teens now want to know that what they believe matters,” Holly said. “They want to see practical things happen from what they believe.”
According to Welsh, “There is a generation of folks that are coming up who want to be doing, want to be serving, want to be involved.”
The mostly young pastors who seem to be driving this effort dare to dream big about the possible positive effects of the Miracle. “If we care to call ourselves the Magic City, we need some magic, or we are just a city,”Griffith said. “The magic in my life is in passion and love and community and relationships, and if we are going to be the Magic City, we have to be a place where people lift each other up and share their lives with each other.”
Harris hopes the Miracle can help change the city change its “self-perception,” adding, “Birmingham likes to talk trash about itself, put itself down, and I think that Birmingham has a hopeful future.”
There are simpler goals for the event, as well. “And of course, as churches, as Christians, we hope that people will experience love from their neighbors,” Holly said. “That’s always our goal.”
“The Magic City Miracle” day of service will begin at Railroad Park Pavilion, Sunday, September 30, at noon. For more information, or to register for a volunteer project, go to www.magiccitymiracle.org.
Jesse Chambers is the editor of Weld Local. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.