Local church takes prayer mission to its community
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 24, 2011 5:09 AM
Many drive past Salem United Methodist Church each day without giving it a second thought.
But it's those who feel they haven't got a prayer that church members are seeking.
"We just talked about all the cars going by the church and how do you reach out to them?" said Janet Hinnant, whose husband, Michael, regularly changes the message on the church marquee.
The busy intersection at the corner of Belfast and Salem Church roads is home to what might be the oldest Methodist Church in Wayne County, founded in 1786. Parishioners there are always looking for ways to bring residents closer, Michael Hinnant said.
"The idea is not what can you do for the church but what can the church do for you?" said Lemuel Bartlett, chairman of the Salem's ConneXions Committee.
The church has been fairly creative in its outreach efforts -- from an annual fall festival to a twist on the yard sale concept, where everything was given away free.
Suggestions for bringing people in have ranged from the serious to the sublime, from sponsoring a "drive-by chapel" to standing on the corner and flagging people down "because they have got to stop at that stop sign," Hinnant said with a smile.
Ultimately, though, a heart for the community has driven the latest effort -- finding a way to pray for passersby.
Hinnant is credited with the vision that began probably three years ago and now can be seen on a little plot of ground at the corner of the church property. It was prompted by his own realization about prayer.
"My dad passed away a few years ago and the day that he passed away, I sat with him in the hospital. He said, 'Do you see that?'" he said, recalling his father's mentioning someone they knew, praying for him. "And he did the same thing a few minutes later (mentioning another name).
"That stuck with me, that people are being prayed for, that God's getting those prayers."
A few weeks ago, a garden was created, with a mailbox later added for the public to submit prayer requests. Then, a message went up on the church marquee announcing the "prayer request box." Forms are provided, which can be filled out with requests and concerns, or residents can submit their own, indicating whether they want the congregation to pray for them or only the pastor or one of the church's small groups. Names are optional and the mailbox is kept locked for security and confidentiality.
Hinnant was excited about the prospect, but admits to a bit of trepidation at the outset.
"The first week no one stopped. Nothing was put in," he said. "But the next week, we had our first two requests. Then after that we had three requests. It's there. People know it now."
And while submissions are anonymous, that doesn't take away from how "touching" the requests have been, Hinnant said.
"Their needs are quite shocking," he said. "One, when I finished reading it, I was just trembling all over because the lady (shared so honestly). They don't leave a name but at least they know someone is praying for them.
"We want them to know that we're here to help them."
What may have started out as "good advertising" for the church is turning into so much more, says Sandy Schaller, Salem's first female pastor, who arrived in July.
"We're always interested in getting to know what the needs in the community (are) that this church can help with and this is certainly giving us a much better idea," she said. "We're hearing of some people that are just in agony, and we realize that the community in which we live is broader than just us. How do we get out of here and go and 'be my disciples' (as Jesus taught)? How do we live in the neighborhood?
"We're already beginning to hear about the drugs. What does that mean we can do? Do we want to look at sponsoring AA or NA? Do we want to have people come out and do educational programs?"
The feedback has also bolstered the congregation, the pastor said.
"I think we're seeing in many areas for many reasons, a sense again of joy, of energy in worship," Mrs. Schaller said. "People within the church are interested in what's happening with this. It's increasing our joy all the time to have something like this."
Bartlett said the effort is also forging a unique relationship between the church and the surrounding area.
"Those people that might have those feelings, it becomes easier for them to express what's inside and get it out and share it," he said. "Once you share that burden, it makes it a whole lot easier to carry."
And while everything now is steeped in privacy, primarily from people lacking a religious background or a church home, Hinnant is optimistic that will change.
"I feel like someday, somebody is going to walk up to me and say, 'Thank you for praying for me. My life is turning around,'" he said.
"It's a blessing to know that you're part of something that you don't know what the results are gonna be but you know that you're doing your part to help a positive result," Bartlett said. "We're planting seeds. ... We're not going to stop with this. We're going to come up with something else."