May 15, 2024 | John W. Coleman

In describing the urban ministry challenge today, the Rev. Evelyn Kent Clark, Eastern PA Conference Dean of the Cabinet, may have turned iconic author Charles Dickens’ most famous opening line into a call for mission evangelism.

“We think these are difficult times with high inflation, wars and rumors of war,” she told a sanctuary crowd during the presentation of awards to four United Methodist churches for their dedicated ministry efforts. “But we represent Christ in the midst of everything that’s going on. So, this is the best time for evangelism
that we’ve ever seen!”

Could our churches be living in the “best of times” amid “the worst of times,” to borrow from Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities? Well, perhaps.

“People are looking for something,” asserted Clark, Superintendent of the South District. “And we’ve got what they’re looking for.”

The annual Herbert E. Palmer Award for Urban Ministry celebrates urban churches that try with faithful, creative determination to offer people what they’re looking for and what they need most in the worst of times to help sustain them in both body and soul.

Four EPA churches in four districts received the 2024 Palmer Awards at Christ UMC in Fairless Hills April 6. They are: Mother African Zoar in Philadelphia (East District); Aurand Memorial in Ringtown (North District); St. Daniel’s in Chester (South District); and Hebron in Lebanon (West District).

Over 50 pastors and lay members came for the entire 90-minute ceremony, which also included presentation of the conference’s annual Denman Evangelism and One Matters awards. Each drove for hours to and from the church. But they clearly felt it was worth the journey, as they all voiced earnest gratitude for the special recognition received from the conference.

Remarkable, Life-Enhancing Ministries

The Rev. David Eckert, co-chair of EPA’s Urban Commission, read glowing descriptions of each church’s remarkable, life-enhancing ministries of community outreach and engagement. And then each representative, clergy and laity team received their award from their district superintendent.

Mother African Zoar UMC’s pastor, the Rev. William Brawner, led a group of 16 members from their pews to tread the red carpet toward the pulpit. As they filled that sacred space, Eckert remembered the Rev. Herbert Palmer as a revered urban ministry mentor and model of leadership over many years.

The Rev. William Brawner and members of Mother African Zoar UMC receive a Palmer Award from East District Superintendent the Rev. Andrew Foster III as the Rev. David Eckert, Urban Commission co-chair, looks on.. John Coleman photo

Eckert then described Zoar’s purchase and use of an RV to distribute food, clothes and other needs in its North Philadelphia neighborhood, but also to offer Holy Communion wherever and to whoever wants it. The Urban Commission at first rejected Zoar’s grant application, Eckert recalled, because the idea seemed too “radical.” But Brawner and his members proceeded with their mobile ministry anyway, prompting the
commission to say yes to their second funding request. “We had to get on board with you,” Eckert admitted with a chuckle.

Also lauded were Zoar’s other outreach to its underserved neighbors. That includes sharing employment, housing and health resources information, twicemonthly free food distribution, breakfast with worship in its fellowship hall on Sundays at 9 a.m., partnering with community organizations and schools to deliver needed supplies and services, and providing youth with Work-Ready temporary employment at $15/hour to help them prepare for future employment.

‘Teamwork makes the dream work’

Donna Holmes Burchess receives a Palmer Award for Aurand Memorial UMC in Ringtown, which sponsors Your Sister’s Closet, a free clothing store for women striving to rebuild their lives. John Coleman photo

“Teamwork makes the dream work,” said Brawner who accepted the award from the Rev. Andrew Foster III, East District Superintendent. He then commended his members for working together as partners to actualize dream-worthy ministries with and for their community.

Aurand Memorial UMC in Ringtown opened Your Sister’s Closet in 2022 to empower vulnerable women striving to rebuild their lives while recovering from addiction, abusive relationships and the impacts of poverty. Donna Holmes Burchess started the free clothing store for women seeking employment, with help from Aurand’s pastor, the Rev. Julian Milewski. Its compassionate services also include job-hunting assistance to encourage those entering or returning to the workforce.

Your Sister’s Closet, a free clothing store sponsored by Aurand Memorial UMC in Ringtown.

They have seen the store quickly evolve into “a beacon of hope for women facing challenging life circumstances.”

“We are privileged and grateful to able to be the Lord’s hands and feet in the world,” said Holmes after receiving the Palmer Award from the Rev. Hun Ju Lee, North District Superintendent. “Your Sister’s Closet is making a real difference in women’s lives and a life-changing impact on its community,” said Lee. “It’s offering more than just clothing, but also a fresh start and confidence for them to pursue new opportunities.”

‘Transforming Lives, Transforming Communities’

The mission of St. Daniel’s UMC, serving its community in Chester for nearly 153 years, is “Transforming Lives, Transforming Communities,” reported Eckert. Their outreach efforts include serving 5,000 meals
a year, giving Christmas shoebox gifts, and offering clothes and other support to families in need.

The church’s nearby satellite campus, HOPE Point Ministries, in the city’s center, offers weekly drive-through prayer, feeding programs, diaper and clothing drives, youth and young adult activities, and popular classes in dance, music, sewing and design. They also partner with community agencies to connect residents with counseling, family health and wellness services, financial support services, and more.

(Center) The Rev. Eric Carr, St. Daniel’s UMC’s pastor, received a Palmer Award from South District Superintendent Evelyn Kent Clark, as three St. Daniel’s church leaders and the Rev. David Eckert (right), Urban Commission co-chair, looks on. John Coleman photo

“God has called us for such a time as this,” said the Rev. Eric Carr, St. Daniel’s pastor, echoing the prophetic notions of South District Superintendent Clark, after receiving the award from her. “God has
called us to be the church that does ministry differently in the community. God has called us to love people, and that’s where it starts for us. We believe that through our servant work people will see God, and then they will see hope.”

Finally, Eckert introduced the awards gathering to Hebron UMC, an historic church trying valiantly to revitalize its aged building, as well as its membership and mission to serve the changing city of Lebanon. A five-year plan is part of that effort, bolstered by participation in the conference’s Pathways congregational vitality initiative.

The plan includes hosting four large “parking lot” events a year to draw increasing numbers of interested residents. They are a Summerfest block party, a Fall Festival, a Halloween Trunk or Treat event, and a Spring Fling.

Hebron UMC created a popular mobile mini-skate park where children come to enjoy skating and learn about Jesus. Rev. Bob Howard photo

But after receiving the Palmer Award, Hebron’s enthusiastic pastor, the Rev. Bob Howard, was eager to tell listeners about two other ministries led by the church’s new children’s ministry coordinators Ryan and Sienna Perini. They created a popular, mobile mini-skate park where dozens of children come to enjoy skating and learn about Jesus.

And the church’s annual Easter egg hunt was moved to a local park in March, after participation grew from 80 to 140 children the past two years. “We planned for 250 kids this time,” Howard said. But
instead, thanks partly to advertising on Facebook, over a thousand energetic children showed up ready for the egg hunt March 24.

‘We’re Going to Matter Here’

The Rev. Jennifer Freymoyer, West District Superintendent, praised Howard’s persistence and church leaders’ determination to stand in the gap and serve their community, declaring even in the face of
decline, “We’re going to matter here.”

FROM LEFT: Ryan Perini and the Rev. Bob Howard wait to receive a Palmer Urban Ministry Award for Hebron UMC in Lebanon from the Rev. Jennifer Freymoyer, West District Superintendent, as the Rev. David Eckert (right), Urban Commission co-chair, looks on.. John Coleman photo

“We’re an old, blue-collar, Pennsylvania Dutch congregation, and change is slow,” said Howard, adding with a laugh, “I think out-of-the-box so much, sometimes it scares my congregation. But we’re right in the middle of ethnic diversity changes happening in Lebanon. And we have to change to meet the needs there, especially to attract young kids.”

Indeed, what these four congregations and others are discovering is that smart change is essential for effective urban ministry, especially now, in what many do consider “the worst of times.” As Clark said, people are “looking for something,” and urban churches have to be able to create that “something,” whether it’s new ministries or “new places for new people,” to cite a decade-old United
Methodist missional strategy.

And those churches that do create and commit to doing something new might discover that this actually is the “best time for evangelism that we’ve ever seen.”

Read about the Rev. Herbert E. Palmer and churches that received Herbert E. Palmer Urban Ministry Awards on EPA’s Urban & Metro Ministries web page. Also, a video about the awards presentations is being produced for the Eastern PA Annual Conference session.