Annual Letter from Pastor Ben

Hello My Friends,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your loved ones! I am writing to you today from the room where Hope Fellowship Church has met over the last few years for discussions and conversations about the Love and Hope of Jesus. Hope Fellowship has always been a church that has focused on exploring new and creative ways to help people in Alleghany County to connect to God. While this room has been much quieter this year, as all of our church gatherings have moved to zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic, our mission has not stopped or even slowed down. I thought that I would tell you a few stories about God continues to work through Hope Fellowship Church.

I don’t think I will ever forget that day in March when we realized we were going to have to dramatically rethink how we approached ministry over the coming weeks and months. Several of us sat around a table in this room brainstorming and writing ideas on a whiteboard. Part of our collective, Grace Kitchen has been a source of food, connection, and hope for people in Alleghany County for two years and we couldn’t imagine ending these weekly meals during a time when people needed it the most. So we came up with a new model that allowed us to safely use a small team of volunteers to deliver food weekly in takeout containers. As we put this model into practice, we quickly realized that there was not only an increased need for food, but for the human connection of a friendly person in the parking lot. Even through masks and other forms of PPE, these conversations at the car window have given folks an important connection and a place that they are known and loved. We have seen the number of people that we serve at Grace Kitchen double during the pandemic in 2020 serving over 200 people many weeks. Most recently, we served 365 people at our community thanksgiving feast! Grace Kitchen has also allowed us to get hygiene items, toilet paper, and winter weather gear to our neighbors that need it the most.

I also want to tell you the story of one of our teens in our Fusion youth program, for this letter I will call her Katie. In the pre-pandemic months when we were hosting an after school program for high school students along with our Wednesday night gathering, Katie was one of about 100 students that we saw each week. She walked down from the high school to the church each day because Fusion was a safe, diverse, and loving community where she feels she belongs. Each week at our Wednesday gathering, we talk about “the most important things in life” like how to have healthy relationships with friends and family, navigating stress and anxiety, discovering our gifts and passions, setting goals, and serving our community. We have these conversations through the lens of the life and teachings of Jesus in a way that allows students like Katie to ask questions, and share her own perspectives. This fall we were able to creatively host Fusion events outside to stay connected to these teens and create space for discipleship to happen regularly.

Because of our connection with students like Katie, we knew we needed to address a critical need in our community. Alleghany County has one of the highest rates of “disconnected youth”, which is often defined as young adults between 16-24 who are not employed, in school, or participating in any sort of training or development program. Teens and young adults in this category are more susceptible to substance abuse, depression, and suicide. This October we launched a pilot class of the new Fusion Innovation Academy. This initial class of eight students is learning critical 21st century job skills in coding, web development, and digital marketing through our online partnerships with other organizations and learning life-leadership skills from local adults twice a week, in a safe and socially distanced way right here in the Hope Fellowship room. We are convinced that this is what Christ-like ministry looks like in our modern times. 21st century loaves and fishes look like career skills, laptop computers, and the healing presence of mentors who will walk with you on the journey of life. Katie is a part of this pilot class and she has already been able to grow her graphic design skills and has even begun to sell her art online. Another student is leading a team in redesigning a local business’ website. Hope Fellowship is called to minister to the whole person. We have created a life leadership curriculum for the Fusion Innovation Academy that features creative learning around the topics of self-awareness, becoming a life-long learner, best practices for careers, and developing healthy relationships. This creates space for our students to grow as a whole person academically, spiritually, and emotionally. Research shows that even one adult invested in the lives of a young person can lead to transformation that can reshape the direction of a student’s life. This is the type of transformation we are celebrating and pursuing, especially as we seek to grow this academy in the years to come.

The final story that I want to share with you is about the discussion-based gatherings at Hope Fellowship Church. We have found that while the trend in church attendance is declining across the nation, even in rural areas, people are eager to connect with God and grow spiritually. Hope Fellowship Church has been meeting by zoom on Sunday nights in a way that calls back to the earliest traditions of the Jesus movement as we pray, read scripture, and discuss it together. This church gathering rooted in simplicity and God’s love has opened the door for many to grow in their faith that may have felt excluded from more conventional forms of church. Transitioning this type of church service to zoom during the pandemic has allowed us to not only continue this discussion-based format but made it possible for people outside of Alleghany County to join us each week. We often use the language of a journey at Hope Fellowship, because God is with us on the journey of life and we are created to experience it with each other in community. In 2020, Hope Fellowship has been an anchor for many people, a consistent space where they can share deeply from their life, encourage each other, and grow in their faith together.

As a pastor, Jesus’ kingdom parables of small amounts of yeast slowly working through dough and small mustard seeds growing into a large tree that becomes a home to many birds are my guiding narrative for how we grow our Hope Fellowship Collective. The vision of our church is “Our community transformed by Jesus”, and we are seeing that transformation take place in ways that seem small, but are significant. What might look like a simple takeout meal, a bonfire with teens, or a discussion on zoom are actually the ways Jesus is at work in our midst, growing God’s kingdom through simple acts in our ordinary lives. As 2020 comes to a close, I am thankful that the vision of our church is thriving as God works in and through each of us.

We want you to continue to be on this journey with us!  We have email devotionals, a weekly podcast, Youtube videos, and events on zoom that will allow you to join in with us from wherever you are. Visit our website at www.hopesparta.org and subscribe to our updates to stay connected to the Hope Fellowship collective. While you are there, please consider supporting Hope Fellowship and our ministries like Fusion and Grace Kitchen with an end of the year gift that will help grow God’s kingdom and transform lives. On our website you can easily give online and view instructions for giving through the mail.  May your holidays and the year ahead be filled with an abundance of God’s grace and the love of Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit guides your life.

 Peace,

 Ben Gatton,

Pastor of Hope Fellowship Church

Hope Fellowship Church is a missional Community born out of Sparta United Methodist Church.