Recently, I spoke with Rev. Barry Bennett, pastor of Wesley UMC in El Reno, Oklahoma concerning ministry with children and families in the communities. I was struck by the intentional ministry that Wesley UMC offers to families in their community. During the oil boom of the 1980s El Reno, Oklahoma, was a thriving, upwardly mobile community. Now it is a city of 15,000 people with an increasing number of families living in poverty. Over 75% of the school district’s elementary school students qualify for reduced or free lunches, and the average reading scores on standardized tests have been low.
The people of Wesley United Methodist Church of El Reno thought, “What does God want of our church?” They discerned a call to welcome, educate, and feed children. Within a short time they went from serving two children to serving thirty-five children, offering a feeding program with adult table partners, tutoring, and religious education.
As church members got to know the children and listened to their stories, specific needs emerged. They discovered that nearly a quarter of the children in El Reno reside in the community because one of their parents is incarcerated in the local state prison. Many of the children are from single-parent homes where the mothers work multiple jobs, or the children are living with grandparents.
Wesley UMC partnered with Project Transformation and the public schools of El Reno to sponsor an eight-week summer program. Project Transformation is a United Methodist-related organization that helps college-age young adults explore ministry opportunities through a summer service internship that provides a summer day camp program for children in low-income neighborhoods.
By the end of the summer, children who had not been reading were reading their first books, and there was a growing participation in family fun nights. The children and their families were not the only beneficiaries of this ministry. The church developed new relationships with families in its community and a clearer answer to the question, “What does God want of our church?”