2:30 P.M. EST Jan. 6, 2010 | SEDGWICK, Ark. (UMNS)
Two years ago, Sedgwick United Methodist Church was close to death.
Regular worship attendance had dwindled to six people, and the congregation had little hope for growth in this 100-resident farming community about 18 miles north of Jonesboro.
Many family farms in the once bustling community lie fallow. Stores have closed, and vacant houses are boarded up.
Few children who go off to college or enter the military ever return to Sedgwick.
By 2008, the town had no school, no gas station, not even a place to buy a stick of gum. The Sedgwick church was at risk of having no pastor.
That spring, Northeast District Superintendent Kurt Boggan informed the congregation that he did not have a local pastor or student pastor to appoint to Sedgwick after the church’s current pastor would depart in June.
Boggan said he did have a certified lay speaker and pastoral candidate whom he could send, but Marilyn Neal was unlike any preacher the congregation had known.
She had a history of substance abuse.
“The congregation was at first resistant to the idea,” Boggan said.
Prior to the meeting, one member told the superintendent the congregation might have to close by Christmas. Now, as the meeting ended, that seemed inevitable.
Boggan told the church to prepare to shut its doors and left the meeting.
“They were in a state of grief,” he said. “There was this sense that we’ve carried on as long as we can this weight and responsibility of a church. Both the physical and financial energy they had for ministry seemed spent.”
It was a familiar situation in the Arkansas Annual (regional) Conference. Over the last six years, 34 of its churches closed — seven shut their doors in 2009.
However, this is not the story of another church’s death; this is the story of a group of believers finding new life.
The day after Boggan’s visit, he got a call from a church member. The congregation — which took great pride in being the first appointment of several United Methodist pastors — decided to welcome Neal.
Two years later, Sedgwick United Methodist Church has seen its weekly worship attendance more than triple, and children’s sermons have become routine. On a recent Sunday in March, about 25 people of various ages filled the pews.
The congregation expanded its outreach to the surrounding community with a food pantry that serves up to 40 people a month and they help pay water bills of people in need. At the 2009 Arkansas Annual Conference, Sedgwick was named one of the Northeast District “churches of the year.”
Elderly members of the Sedgwick church now share their faith with a new generation of church members.
“This is a resurrection story,” Boggan said. “They are in an isolated community, but they are doing effective ministry in the name of Christ.”
Church members say Neal played a major role in the congregation’s reinvigoration.
“She helped us look outward,” said Mike Doyle, the church’s song leader. “Her feeling was that if we look outward at the needs of the community that that would be a good thing for us.”
However, just as the Sedgwick congregation needed resurrection, Neal needed redemption.
The daughter and granddaughter of Methodist pastors, Neal quit attending church at age 16, and as many preachers’ kids, she rebelled. She started drinking, using marijuana and having problems at school.
As she grew older, her problems worsened. She started using hard substances and eventually became addicted to crack cocaine.
“Every day and every night was about getting high,” she said. “The things that I experienced during that period of time were a living hell. And so, when I see people doing what I did, I feel it in my inside. I know the pain that they’re in.”
At times, she was homeless and had nothing to eat. On one such occasion, she stumbled upon a United Methodist church in Dallas with an open food pantry. A counselor at the church helped her get food, an apartment and a change of clothes so she could look for work. She found a job the next day, and she got sober for a while.
“I didn’t stay clean,” she said. “But it helped me see what the church could be.”
By 2004, her addictions once again had overpowered her. Her life had gotten so bad, she said, that she did not want to live. She finally hit bottom one night when she was badly beaten in a rough neighborhood while on her way to get high.
A police officer took her to Potter’s Clay, a shelter for abused women in Hot Springs. That was Neal’s turning point. She has not gotten high since.
After a brief stint at the shelter, she enrolled in a substance-abuse treatment program that works through Little Rock’s Center for Women in Transition. There, she became friends with Sister Lee Ann McNally, a Catholic nun who serves as the program’s executive director. McNally continually assured Neal that there was good in her.
“That was hard to believe because I had done so much that was wrong,” Neal said.
Still, McNally’s words and letters of encouragement, as well as strong support from her family, kept Neal going. She continued her treatment and eventually moved back in with her father, the Rev. Jim West, who was then pastor of Cherry Valley and Vanndale United Methodist churches.
For the first time in nearly two decades, she started attending church regularly. She worked as a hairdresser, but she also began to discern a call to full-time ministry. In 2007, she became a certified lay speaker.
“It was a process, and it wasn’t one I wanted to accept too easily,” she said. “The way things have fallen in place for me since I made that decision has amazed even my dad.
“It’s just mind-boggling to see how much God will do for us and the doors that will be open when we begin to take action to live right and learn more.”
Today, Neal — who also serves as pastor of nearby Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church — is a licensed local pastor and a second-year student at Memphis Theological Seminary.
Neal knew before taking Sedgwick’s pulpit that some in the congregation were leery of her. But, on her first Sunday, people who had not worshiped at the church in months were sitting in the pew.
“I think they heard there’s a woman preacher, and she has a colorful history,” she said. “They wanted to see what I would be like.”
Doyle, the song leader, agreed that the appointment of a woman pastor sparked curiosity in the small town.
“We actually had someone visit from the Baptist church just because he wanted to see a woman preacher,” he said.
Nobody left because of Neal. In fact, people who had left the church began coming back. Tim and Angie Nichols were among those.
“We now feel a sense of community that had dwindled over the years,” Tim Nichols said.
The couple was instrumental in starting Living Waters, a ministry that helps about three people a month with water bills and last winter helped a man pay his propane bill. The ministry honors Tim Nichols’ father, the late J.G. Nichols, who worked for the water company for many years and was a devoted member in the church.
The Sedgwick church had always been mission minded. Even when the church was at its smallest, the congregation always scraped together $300 each year to send to Methodist Family Health at Christmastime, said J.S. Fielder, who served as the congregation’s treasurer for 37 years.
Neal said she wanted to start the pantry because of the help she received from the United Methodist church in Dallas when she had no other place to go. She said Sedgwick members have been equally enthusiastic in taking on new projects.
“This congregation is wonderful,” she said. “If an idea comes to mind, and I present it to the board, they go for it. I don’t have a person here who’s against doing more outreach.”
Neal acknowledged that the church faces an uncertain future. The town’s population is still shrinking. But there are signs of life. A new convenience store recently opened in town, and major events at the church draw as many as 40 people. Those who do come to church also seem eager to share in its mission work.
Libby James, daughter of Mike Doyle and church pianist Robyn Doyle, used to only attend the church once a month or so. Now, she and her husband, Zach, occupy a front pew where Libby helps lead music with her parents.
James said she takes great comfort that the church’s steeple still lights up each night and illuminates people’s way.
“That’s what our mission is,” she said, “to be that beacon for people. We reach out into the dark corners.”
*Hahn is the editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, the newspaper of the Arkansas Annual Conference.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.