by Hannah Shepperd
Prosser is a small town nestled on the Yakima River in south-central Washington. Among the region’s sprawling vineyards and lush valleys is a community pillar: Prosser United Methodist Church.
Faced with an ever-changing landscape for community needs, the church has rallied to help in new ways. Prosser UMC’s Rev. Bo Bryan shared that he “[has] been impressed by the creativity and compassion of the people in this congregation. Rather than just hunkering down and focusing on themselves, they have been looking around and observing the needs of people in their communities, and then looking for ways they can respond to those needs.”
Volunteers have done so in a variety of ways.
After a group within the congregation suggested an open community “Soup Night” this winter, the church worked hard to host the first such event in February. Local advertising and word-of-mouth met the free event with success, with plans to continue the last Thursday of each month.
The church realized that such an event would not be possible under new guidelines in March, due to COVID-19. However, the motivated people of Prosser UMC didn’t let these changes put an end to the new ministry. Bryan, along with volunteers Alys Means and Donna Barr, decided to get creative with the free meals.
The group improvised, and adapted the ministry to social distancing recommendations. Homemade soup was replaced by a canned alternative — paired with packaged crackers — in a to-go bag. These bags were available on a table outside of the church for curbside pick-up. Fellowship transformed from in-person care to distanced hospitality.
Bryan spoke to volunteers’ willingness to help: “The community soup night ministry had a whole kitchen crew of non-member community volunteers set to cook the March soup meal, before we had to change our plans. Those folks then donated many of the cans of soup we put out that month and in April.”
With more local and online advertising, the ministry team served 19 cars on the last Thursday in March. This number grew to 29 in April. When asked if this new format would continue, Rev. Bryan shared, “Yes, although this month they plan to put packages of dried beans and rice into the paper bags. [The ministry team’s] idea is these might provide more meals, particularly for families, than the soup and crackers.”
There are also opportunities to reach more families in May. Bryan reported plans to “[post] a sign on the table encouraging people to take more than one bag for other family members living in separate homes.” There are plans to continue to-go bags until the church can return to in-person soup nights.
Keeping with the momentum of a new transformative ministry, members were further inspired to help their community. One congregant suggested a Community Needs fund to help those in the area suffering from recent shutdowns, and the church sent out a plea for donations.
The church decided to give these donations — $3,000 in April — to another local nonprofit, rather than creating a new fund. Mustangs4Mustangs, named for the high school’s mascot, “addresses primary housing, primary transportation, medical need, utility assistance, and rental assistance along with personal safety issues for our fellow Mustangs and their families no matter where they may live.”
Bryan articulated plans to continue this fundraising for the duration of COVID-19 restrictions and shutdowns. The church plans to partner with a new community nonprofit each month, with possibilities of expanding to surrounding areas. Rev. Bryan explained a need to expand to congregants’ communities: “Since we have church members from Sunnyside, Grandview, and Benton City, as well as Prosser, we want to work with community support groups in those locations too.”
Ecumenical ministries in Prosser have also been energized by new community needs. Thirty years ago, local churches created a food bank called Jubilee Ministry. Prosser UMC is one of many churches with members who volunteer at the food bank.
Conversations surrounding expanding the ministry have been in motion for years, and current shutdowns have been pivotal in moving those forward. These new efforts will include financial assistance for essential bills and financial counseling. Bryan, who also serves as treasurer for Jubilee Ministry, expressed hopes that “as the new financial assistance program gets going, members of Prosser UMC will volunteer to serve in that way as well.” The ministry is looking to help neighbors in the moment, as well as continued support to uplift the community as a whole.
Prosser United Methodist Church and community partners have used this time to grow and adapt to new community needs. “[Members of the congregation] don’t let the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 keep them from responding, but seek creative ways to transform their ideas so they will work within those restrictions to help meet the need,” Bryan said. “They each do what they can in whatever way they can, in living out their faith. It is exciting to see people responding to this crisis through the creation of new ministries and the adaptation of existing ones, all for the purpose of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.”