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Blistering summer challenges churches (UM News)

July 27, 2022

The youth of First United Methodist Church of Dallas made a summer mission trip last week, their first since the pandemic began.

They and their chaperones came home in good spirits after four days of helping repair roofs for low-income residents in San Antonio. And they had tales to tell.

Sweaty tales. 

“The highest temperature we saw was 105, but I would say it felt at least 10 degrees hotter when you were up on the roof,” said Dorian Albert, youth ministry director. “The tar from the shingles was melting onto our shoes and gloves.”

Across much of the U.S., as well as Europe, it’s been a summer of record-setting heat, presenting challenges and opportunities for United Methodist ministry.

One example is in Philadelphia, where Calvary United Methodist called off in-person worship on July 24, going to online only. The temperature hit 99 degrees — a city record for that date. 

Calvary has fans but no air-conditioning. 

“We made the right move,” said the Rev. Tim Emmett-Rardin, the church’s pastor. “We felt, at best, it would have been uncomfortable. And at worst, it might have been unsafe.”

Trinity United Methodist in Chico, California is serving as a cooling center this summer, giving unsheltered people a respite from the 100-degree-plus daytime temperatures. 

With the Pacific Northwest seeing record heat, Wesley United Methodist Church in Yakima, Washington, answered a call from local government agencies to keep its doors open for folks needing to cool off.

“We’re at 106 today,” the Rev. Shane Moore, pastor, said on July 26. “This is one of those easy places for us to reach out and be a partner with our community.”

Another Wesley United Methodist, in Phoenix, also is serving as a cooling center this summer. The Rev. Sylvia Harris, pastor, credits longtime member Rosalyn Gorden as the catalyst for a comprehensive outreach to homeless people that includes providing an outdoor shower and health screenings by nursing students. 

Phoenix is used to 110-degree (or higher) summer days, but Harris notes that this summer is unusual in having nights where the temperature never gets below 90. 

“There’s just no relief,” she said.

Marble Falls, Texas, about an hour from Austin in the Texas Hill Country, also is no stranger to big heat. But this summer, the high temperatures arrived early and have stuck around, causing a general scramble for shade. 

“The police officers have been pulling into our lot and parking under our trees to do their paperwork,” said the Rev. Ellen Ely, pastor of First United Methodist of Marble Falls. 

Ely’s church is for the first time opening as a place to cool off. Volunteers come from the Highland Lakes Crisis Network— a group of local churches that respond together to emergencies.

“I called the executive director in early June and said, ‘Hey, Kevin (Naumann), if you need a cooling center, we’re in. It’s going to be a tough summer,’” Ely said.

That’s been the case a few hours north in Sherman, Texas, where a nonprofit called Grand Central Station Sherman provides breakfast and lunch to the needy.

With local temperatures routinely topping 100 in July, and no break in sight, First United Methodist Church of Sherman will begin Aug. 1 to supply volunteers so that Grand Central Station Sherman can stay open as a cooling center through the afternoons.

The Rev. Denise Peckham is pastor of First Sherman, where the thermostat for the sanctuary has been set a little higher lately. Some congregants have grumbled, but Peckham believes it’s a necessary conservation measure. 

It eases the power grid a tad and helps the church’s budget. 

“Our utility costs are just like everybody else’s — going through the roof,” Peckham said. 

McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church in Norman, Oklahoma, operates a drive-thru food pantry and offers help with utility bills to low-income residents. 

Volunteers have braved triple-digit heat to deliver food bags. Scott Meier, the church’s director of missions and community outreach, has been kept hopping as well.

A 2020 NOAA publication notes that climate scientists are nearly unanimous in concluding that human activities are increasing heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. The scientists say that largely accounts for a 1.8°F (1.0°C) rise in global average temperatures since the late 19th century.