First United Methodist takes time to serve, invite

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Eight-year-old Haydn Truett was having the devil’s own time pushing his wheelbarrow up the hill Sunday morning, but every now and then a kind, southerly breeze cooled his skin, and reminded him he was working for a good cause.
“This is pretty manly,” said Truett, straining under the weight of leaves and debris as he muscled it all up Ann Blanchard’s driveway on North Green Street.
For Shipman Sloan, having his hands in the dirt brought out his spiritual side.
“It’s easy to get into a routine, within the confines of your own church,” said Sloan, 27, as he bagged and raked leaves.
“This helps us connect to our neighbors on a different level.”
The members of Tupelo First United Methodist Church were following up on a project they started three weeks ago, where they simply walked the neighborhood asking folks if they could do anything for them.
It was part of an ongoing effort, on behalf of the 1,700-member church, to swing wide the doors of its worship life and to invite in those who might not feel comfortable in traditional religious situations.
They called the area they covered the “Mile of Grace,” meaning a one-square-mile area surrounding the church at the corner of Main and Green Street.
Sunday morning, First Methodist consolidated its three worship services into one outdoor service, and members used the spare time to beautify the community.
On Church Street, one group worked on Betty Bradley’s yard.
Abby Hunt, 15, applied a thick, even coat of white paint to the outdoor banister while inside, Bradley’s daughter, Felicia Marion, praised the group for their generosity.
“This is just a blessing,” said Marion, whose elderly mother was attending church services in Okolona.
“Especially to have the youth out like this – what a blessing.”
Up and down Green Street, the volunteers left in their wake neatly trimmed yards and curbs stacked high with bags of leaves and overgrown limbs.
They all said God had smiled on them with the pretty weather, and as they worked the breeze passed over like a whisper of the violence that devastated central Mississippi 24 hours earlier.
Even folks whose yards weren’t being serviced took note of all the activity.
Curtis Bryant sat on his doorstep on Magazine Street as, inside the house, Sharon Whiteside donned a sheen, black and white summer dress and fixed her hair. A couple of First Methodist workers had invited the two to the worship service and picnic which would take place in about half an hour.
“We love to be invited,” said Whiteside, smoothing back her short hair and stepping into the sunshine.
A few yards away, at the corner of Frisco Street, young Barbara Wardlow was smiling as pretty as a pearl necklace as she hurried to fetch her friends, Francis and Jarquevis, from the yellow apartment building on the corner.
“Everything looks so good around here,” said Wardlow, admiring the volunteers’ work. “They invited us so we’re going. Yes sir.”
Around 11:30 the workers and visitors came trickling in from the neighborhood. They took their seats under the huge tent set up outside the Helping Hands building, an outreach organization that First Methodist supports along with several other area churches.
The band drifted into a blues-like rendition of “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” with senior pastor, Andy Ray, blowing soulfully on the harmonica.
They played “Power in the Blood,” and “I’ll Fly Away,” as members brought out heaps of pasta salad and fruit, and stacks of sandwiches and caramel-colored cakes.
“The Invitation is doing well,” said associate pastor, Jimmy Criddle, referring to the church’s alternative worship service which started nearly two years ago in Wesley Hall.
“But, we want to make sure that local folks – in this neighborhood – know that we’re thinking about them.” Perhaps, he said, First Methodist will begin a weekly worship service at the Helping Hands location.
Behind the crowd, Terry Shannon, 58, who’s been attending First Methodist for eight years, danced as the band played. Every half turn he’d lock fingers with little 16-month-old Sarah Baker, who gloried in her new friend’s attention, and danced in her father’s arms.
Contact Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.