by Erik Alsgaard
You know that old saying: “When life gives you lemons…”? That is exactly what happened at Rehoboth UMC in Williamsport this summer.
Last October, the congregation at Rehoboth moved lock, stock, and barrel from its land-locked location in downtown Williamsport to a new building five miles away. When the pandemic hit five months later, they were forced out of the new church that had hardly been used.
“We were just getting settled in,” said the Rev. Mike Bennett, the church’s pastor, “and the question became, ‘Now, what do we do?’”
Leaders at the church started asking what they could do to stay relevant in their community during quarantine, Bennett said. They weren’t interested in adding more Bible studies or online resources, he said, but wanted to do something tangible in ministry to their community.
They already had an outdoor covered pavilion that had served as summer worship space for years; they simply continued with that.
But they had more. More land, to be exact — 100 acres — and this became part of the answer.
“We said, ‘The sky’s the limit; we can do whatever we want out here,’” Bennett said.
The fundraising campaign for their new church used the slogan, “Room to Grow.” Little did they know how those words would come to be understood in a new way.
Bennett asked a farmer in the church to plow a small piece of land to be used as a community garden. Instead, the farmer plowed one acre. The father/son duo, Bennett said, also planted about three-quarters of that acre with corn, peppers, zucchini, squash, potatoes, and more.
Then the question became, “What do you do with all that food?”
Grace Bennett, Ministry Coordinator at Rehoboth, set to work.
“I’m always looking for ways to connect the church to the outside world,” she said. Using partnerships with the Salvation Army, a local food pantry, North Point Veterans Home in Hagerstown, and Brook’s House — a residential recovery home for women — Grace Bennett knew that food was a common denominator.
So, they set out to feed people.
The church started making and delivering meals to the nearby Springfield Apartments.
“We didn’t want them to drive during the quarantine,” Grace Bennett said, “and some of them can’t because they’re seniors.” Meals deliveries happen every Saturday, she said.
Grace Bennett said that there are two teams of church members who come to the church’s kitchen and help prepare the food. There are also teams of people who deliver the meals. About 40 to 45 people make this ministry possible, she said.
Related to the food and gardening ministry is the church’s unique beekeeping ministry. This all started with a sermon series Mike Bennett preached during Lent. Mike Bennett titled the series “The Hive,” which he said was about the reign of God. In doing research for the series, he learned a lot about bees … and beekeeping.
“All of what I was learning just caused me to be more interested,” he said. “And so, as I was telling some of the other church members, a few of them had a little bit of experience in beekeeping.”
And one thing led to another.
The group got together over the winter and took classes. The real challenge, Mike Bennett said, was to build a hive and get a queen bee. One of the members built a hive, and they found a queen bee from a keeper in Virginia.
And this summer, the hives thrived. More than 100,000 bees are producing honey in what is now two hives. The plan is to grow this beekeeping ministry to the point where they can sell the honey to church members and at local farmers markets. This will involve more people, Mike Bennett said, because they’ll need someone to design a logo for their product, bottle it, staff the booth at the market, and more.
Mike Bennett is also happy that the church is contributing in a small way to helping the ecology of the earth. Bee colonies continue to decline, he said, “and we can't seem to stop it and so we have to continue to create more hives.”
Both Mike and Grace know that church’s need to remain relevant to their community if they are to grow. That’s especially important, they added, during the pandemic.
‘We’re all struggling in how do we continue to be relevant as church,” Mike Bennett said. “We are all in this together and we're going to get through this. I don't know where this ends up, but in the meantime, there are ways that we can still remain relevant and useful to the community. I think this is a time where we can really be a witness to Christ and (be) a presence for people. We need people to really serve and to sacrifice and to show people that we love them.”