Episode 45: A Beacon of Hope

We welcome Rev. Patrick Turner and Deacon Terry Dillon of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX. They share why the church decided to become a distribution site for the COVID 19 vaccine, and how that fits in with their church's ongoing vision and mission.

 

  • Interview (01:15)
  • Ministries with Long Histories (23:20)
  • Prayer (29:40)

This week, we’ll be welcoming to leaders from Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX, which volunteered to be a distribution site for the COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year. They’ll talk a little bit about the history of Mount Moriah, how the church’s relationship to its mission field has changed over the years, and how making the COVID-19 vaccine available to their neighbors fits in with their vision for ministry and service.

This interview was recorded in May of 2021.

In this episode…
  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

  • Rev. Patrick Turner is the lead pastor of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX. He has been in ministry for over 30 years, and has led the ministry at Mt. Moriah for over 14 years.

  • Terry Dillon serves as the chair of the Deacon board at Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX.

  • Nathan Leamer is a member of the Christian Civics Executive Board and serves as a policy advisor at the Federal Communications Commission. He previously worked at a think tank and, before then, on the Hill. While Nathan is a graduate of Calvin College and caught his political bug in Michigan, he has never lost his fanaticism for the sports of his hometown, the City of Brotherly Love.

Rate, Review and Subscribe on…
Action Item

What are the most common health problems in your town? In your county? In your state? Find out, and commit to praying for ministries that are working to bring healing to these problems. If your church has a deacon’s fund or some other kind of mercy ministry set up, you can begin by asking the people in charge of that what health concerns they hear about most often. You can also call or check the website of your city/state’s department of health to see what topics they talk about most.

TRANSCRIPT

Rev. Turner: Mt. Moriah will soon be celebrating 64 years of existence. The church started in the Stop Six area in Fort Worth. It’s a somewhat economically challenged area.

The church started in a building that was less than 1000 square feet. They later moved to about 3000 square feet. And later on a building was built, which brought the total capacity in square footage to about 8,000. Four years after I became pastor, we moved to our present location, which is in the Meadowbrook area, about three miles from the original location, and we now have more than 22,000 square feet and four-and-a-half acres at the highest point in Terrell county.

Rick: Your church has quite a footprint! What’s happening between worship services there? During the week, how are you all using that space?

Rev. Turner: We are in the process of perhaps opening a daycare. We’ve hosted summer programs with the department of agriculture, where we offered breakfast and lunch to children in the community. We’re praying that this daycare would get off the ground and certainly be something that we can offer the community.

Rick: If we talked to some of the people who live near your church, but aren’t members or aren’t visitors, or maybe aren’t even Christians, what would they know about your church? What would they tend to think about the work you all are doing in the neighborhood?

Deac. Dillon: When the church first came here on this hill, we were new. There was a church here before, and most of the people in the community thought we were still that church. They didn’t have a concept that we were a new church under new leadership. We went a couple of years like that, and we realized that, “Wait a minute! We’re not actually getting into the community where are we at now!” We were still facilitating the community that we came from!

That opened up our eyes. There were people that are saying, “We didn’t know y’all were open!” And these are people across the street! So we started doing outreach into the community, going house-to-house, door-to-door, re-introducing ourselves and letting them know that what Mt. Moriah has available for the community.

And so now, even though members of the community may not be members of Mt. Moriah, they still take advantage of the services that we provide. And that gives us an opportunity to reach them, whether they become members or not. It doesn’t matter if you are a member of Mt. Moriah—if you have a need, we want to be there to be able to help you get through that need.

Rev. Turner: Prior to 2020 and COVID, every year we hosted a job fair and a health fair that was open to the community where we’re able to provide jobs for numerous individuals in the community. They were able to come and get health and cancer screenings. We had blood drives. We also have food and clothing giveaways. So we try to be as active in the community as we possibly can.

The community we now serve, Meadowbrook, used to be predominantly white and quite upscale. The demographics have changed. We actually bought the church [building] from a white congregation. And so, as Deacon Dillon alluded to, there were many in the community who did not know that the church had changed hands. We had to actually get out and do street ministry. We had to get out and walk and knock on doors and let them know that we were actually here. The prior church that was here, because the demographics had changed, their membership was basically null and void. They weren’t doing a lot of things in the community. And so we had to raise the awareness.

One of the things that helped to raise awareness is that we have a 100-foot cross that’s a landmark for this community. It’s actually a Verizon cell phone tower, but it gave us some instant recognition as it relates to being the church and being available.

Rick: How did COVID affect the community around your church?

Rev. Turner: Kinda like every place else: It affected the job situation. It became a challenge for parents, especially single mothers who had to find a way to take care of the children and be able to offer homeschooling. It created many challenges for our area. It gave us the opportunity to reach out and minister even to our own members who were single parents and needed help with children and getting them educated. It created the same problems as a did throughout the United States of America, and worldwide. This is a pandemic, so it’s worldwide. And so we had the same challenges here that many other communities had, and we tried to be a beacon for those who, perhaps, needed a place to go, or even just for spiritual healing! I think that many times during this pandemic, the one thing that people needed was spiritual healing, so we had to ramp up and be able to offer online service where people could still get their spiritual connection to Christ.

Rick: Early on in the pandemic, we worked with a couple of other organizations to put together a resource library for ministry leaders to figure out how to provide different kinds of care during the pandemic—how to help people find food banks or navigate unemployment, or get counseling. But one of the things your church has done to care for the community around you that is somewhat unique is, you actually became a vaccine distribution site, in addition to the other things you’re doing for your neighbors. How did that opportunity come up for you all?

Deac. Dillon: Well, just like Stop Six, over here in Meadowbrook, this was an underserved community when it came to vaccination. There were no clinics here. So, we saw a need, and we reached out to our city council members to find out, what can we do? “We’re willing to host a clinic here in Meadowbrook. What do we need to do?”

It didn’t make sense to me, and it didn’t make sense to the members of our community, that there was nowhere in this community to get a shot. They had to travel too far to get it, which made it inconvenient. And most of the people in this community now may not have transportation, or they use public transportation. And if it wasn’t convenient, they weren’t going to do it.

Rick: Tell me a little bit more about how your church’s leadership team made the decision to do this. You saw that there was a need, but how did you decide that this was a need that it was appropriate for your church to fill?

Rev. Turner: It was really a no-brainer. We all are pretty much on the same page. So when the idea and the opportunity presented itself, it was really a no-brainer that, yes, this is something that we want to do. This is something that we’re going to do. Something we’ve been waiting to do!

Because, as you probably know, within the black community, there’s some skepticism as it relates to vaccinations, and the church has long been a beacon of light within our community. People feel that they can trust what’s going on if it stems from the church. So we wanted to be that beacon of light in the community that says, “Hey, it’s okay to come and get your vaccination.”

Rick: There’s something also very encouraging or satisfying about people who are looking for protection or looking for healing or looking for their health to be secured, knowing that there’s a giant cross marking the spot where they can go for healing. That delights me.

Rev. Turner: Without a doubt.

Rick: Before you started working with the city to distribute the vaccine, what was your relationship with the city council like?

Rev. Turner: I sent it to the council person for this district, Gyna Bivens. I became acquainted with her when we were trying to get the cell phone tower erected, when I went down to city hall. She said that she was impressed with the fact that I was adamant about having this erected, and we developed a close relationship.

Not only that, but her deceased father was one of the founding pastors here in the city of Fort Worth! We developed a unique relationship. She’s a member of my home church here in Fort Worth, Mount Olivet Baptist Church. We’ve done pilot programs with the city. We did a racial equality study with a local Presbyterian church here in the city. Mount Moriah is a favorite with the city of Fort Worth because of Gyna Bivens, and the favor of God. It’s not because we’ve done anything so great. But God showed us favor. And so we’re well-known down at the city of Fort Worth because of our council person, Gyna Bivens.

Rick: What was actually getting that vaccine distribution site up and running like? What went well? What were some of the unexpected challenges you faced? I know you’ve you mentioned vaccine hesitancy earlier and we’ll get to that in a moment, but aside from that, what did you learn or what were you surprised by as you worked on this?

Rev. Turner: I’ll let Deacon Dillon address that, because he met with them when they came out to survey our facilities.

Deac. Dillon: They came out on a Friday and looked at all facilities and said, “Okay, it’s acceptable. We’ll be back next Friday and host the clinic.” So we had seven days to get everybody prepared, advertising, to get the word out to community. So the challenge was the time constraint. There was a lot of scrambling to let people know. We put it on our website, and we had to get it out on signs and billboards. We had to get flyers out. Just to try to let everybody know—that was the biggest challenge.

And we probably didn’t hit everybody we needed to get to, but when we had the co and then when we had the COVID clinic, we were surprised at the amount of people that actually came. They actually found out about it.

As he said, this has become a Hispanic and black community, so we advertised in both languages to make sure we reached everybody. It didn’t matter if they were a member of this church or not, because we’re in the business of trying to bring people to healing, and this shot gives them an opportunity to heal what’s going on with them.

Before we even knew we were going to be a clinic, as leaders of the church, one of the first things we did was take the shots first. Then Pastor, every Sunday, from the pulpit, would let people know, “I’m still standing. I’m still okay. It’s okay. You can come get the shot.”

Rev. Turner: I got a call on a Thursday evening saying, “We have 2000 doses available and we need to get those shots into arms by next Friday. Can you host the shot clinic?” So we didn’t have a lot of prep time. We didn’t have a lot of time advertise and to promote it. But with God, you don’t need a whole lot of time, because he specializes in taking small things and doing a lot with them. So we were able to pull it off successfully. We had one of the worst thunderstorms you could think of that afternoon. We had a lot of things that really seemed to be working against us. But it was successful.

The second phase will be this coming Friday, where they’ll come back and get their second shot. Even if they didn’t get their first shot here, they can get their second shot here. And if they have not had any shots, they can still receive the first shot here on this coming Friday, as well. So it’s an ongoing thing that we hope to continue until most of this community or any other communities have received the vaccine.

Rick: You’d mentioned that your neighbors have some degree of hesitancy about the vaccine, and even some members of your congregation. Where does that hesitation come from?

Rev. Turner: A lot of it is rooted, again, in things that have happened among the black community, like the Tuskegee study and other things that have happened that have caused us to have some hesitancy as it relates to getting vaccinated. Even in our own church I’ve tried to impress upon our members that I was one of the first to receive the vaccine. They ask us from city hall for all local religious leaders, especially in the black community, to get the vaccine so that we could then encourage our parishioners to go and receive it, as well.

Most of them did, but then you have some who just have that hesitancy that they’re not going to do it. Because again, they think that it hasn’t been long enough. There haven’t been enough studies yet. They’re just not ready to take it yet. And for those people, you can’t try to be too forceful. You’ve got to allow them to do it at their own pace, at their own time. Some of our elderly members, who I really thought would be adamant about getting it, have decided they don’t want to take it. And at that point, there’s not a lot you can do other than pray that they stay healthy and, at some point, realize that this is something that’s safe to do.

Rick: You mentioned that Tuskegee experiments. Even before the COVID vaccine, over the last couple of years, people have been bringing the Tuskegee experiments up a lot as part of a narrative of continuing mistreatment of black people in the US. Especially when that is top of mind for some people, how do you help people differentiate this vaccine from the Tuskegee experiments? That seems like a very complicated conversation to have with someone who is actively afraid of something.

Rev. Turner: The thing that makes this different is that COVID-19 is not a black disease. It’s not a white epidemic. It’s worldwide. It crosses all racial lines. It crosses all economic barriers and lines. It’s all-inclusive. And so anything that’s beneficial as it relates to COVID-19 is beneficial to every segment. If you can get people to understand that black, white, brown, Latino, Asian, Japanese, Chinese—it affects all of us. And so the vaccine is good, if I may use a Bible, for the healing of the nations.

And so it is not anything that’s racially motivated or that’s put out to hurt us, because if you go get the shot, you’ll see every race of people in line getting the same shot.

Deac. Dillon: To add to that, the Tuskegee experiment was done in the dark. Nobody knew what was going on. With this, there is information available. We can give you the information, you can study it, read it, find it. We can tell you where to go to get it, and you can make a decision on it and hopefully you’ll make a decision that’s beneficial for you and your family, because at least you have the information to look at.

Rick: I know that my church has been doing the YouTube church model for over a year now. And this spring, they started, in addition to that, doing outdoor worship services in a park. But I also know that my pastors and elders at my church are actively trying to figure out when they’re going to start gathering indoors again. They’ve decided recently they’re going to do it soon, and my wife and I are really trying to figure out what would make us comfortable bringing our family back to indoor worship in terms of rules about masks, whether they’re going to require proof of vaccination. I don’t envy ministry leaders who need to make these decisions on behalf of large groups of people that probably disagree with one another. There are probably people in my church who think my wife and I are being way too cautious, and people in our church who think my wife and I are way too reckless—based on us making the exact same decision! How is your ministry team, and especially your leadership team, talking about this, thinking about this, making this decision? And how is the fact that you’re hosting a vaccination clinic changing the way you’re talking with your congregation about regathering?

Rev. Turner: We made the decision that we’re back in service. We’re back open. Of course, we’re still adhering to CDC protocols. Even though that mandate has changed in the last week to 10 days, we’re still adhering to those protocols. We require masks. We’re still socially distancing. Normally we would have a choir of 30 to 35, but now we have a [smaller] praise team. They’re socially distanced, as well. They’re in the choir loft, which is quite a distance from the congregation. During the entire service, all of the parishioners are required to keep their masks on. When the praise team is not singing, they have to have their masks on. When I’m not speaking, I have my mask on. All of our communion is taken in a self-contained, disposable a receptacle. You peel off the top and there’s the bread. You peel off another layer and there’s the wine or the drink.

Rick: Has that always been the case or is that a new COVID precaution?

Rev. Turner: We’ve used that for a number of years.

Rick: How tightly packed was your congregation before COVID? And are there just fewer people coming right now? Or have you had to add more services to accommodate for the distance? Or are there people participating in worship from different parts of your campus?

Deac. Dillon: What we’re doing now with congregation is, we’re in the main building. We’re using every other seat, and three people to a pew, unless you’re a family member. Then you can have more to a pew. And we use every other pew, so we can try to keep six feet every direction.

And then in the back of our church, we distanced chairs back there, which has enough seating for about 20 more people. And if it’s more than that, then we open up a second facility and you can stream it over there.

As leaders we’ve had that conversation. Is it time? Is it time? Is it time to come back to church? And we’ve struggled with that. We’ve been talking about it for several months, and then we finally came to the decision that, okay, it’s time, but we’re not going to make anybody come back to church. We’re going to give you the information. We’re going to try to put protocols in place to make you feel safe and try to do our part. We do temperature checks coming in and we keep a record of everybody who comes into the church. We sanitize the building. We only let so many people in the restroom at once. We just take as many precautions as we can to make people feel safe.

We also let them know, “If you have a fever, or if you feel like you’re sick, we prefer you to stay at home, because we’re streaming on every social media platform. You can stay at home and watch it.”

We have seen some churches actually collect the membership’s COVID card and only letting those members come back to church. We’re not doing that. We also have the masking and, because the favor of the Lord, we’ve had no outbreaks, we had no cases that happened in the church since we’ve been doing this.

Rick: For the people who have felt comfortable coming back and have been healthy enough to come back without endangering other members of the church, what has been the thing they’re most happy about?

Rev. Turner: Just to be back in the fellowship. Just to be able to see people again. I’ve been here for 25 years. When you’ve grown accustomed to seeing someone at least once a week—many times two or three times a week, depending on whether they come to Bible study or other functions in the church—when you’ve been accustomed to seeing some of those people every week for 25 years, and then you go 14, 15 months and not see them at all, it’s like losing or missing a family member. So when you see them, it’s like a great family reunion. It’s almost going to heaven! You’re just overjoyed, because these are people that you’ve come to love.

And I’m a hugging pastor. I’m very animated. I’m very loving with the congregation. And it’s hard not to embrace those people, because you’re glad to see them. And so they’re just glad to be back in the fellowship.

Online is great. I thank God that we have that platform. I would hate to think what would have happened had this happened 20 to 25 years ago, when we didn’t have social media. We would have been lost. I’m grateful for that. But there’s nothing like being in the spirit with other worshipers and other believers, because we draw strength from other believers.

Reflection on Churches with Long Histories

Rick: I’ve spent most of my Christian life in churches that are fairly young, fairly new. I’ve been a member of three churches, and a committed member of two of them. Both of them were planted within my lifetime. So whenever I’m talking with someone who’s helping to steward a ministry that’s been around for a lot longer than I have, I always have to adjust my thinking a little.

Now, I know that, in the grand scheme of our faith, 60 or 70 years isn’t really that long. There are definitely people listening to this who are part of ministries that have been around for hundreds of years. Our faith is built around the idea that things that happened two thousand years ago are still immediate and relevant today. And the gospels tell us that if we think Jesus’ life is relevant to us, then we have to understand that all of human history is relevant to us, going back to Abraham, and even to Adam.

So, yeah, 60 years isn’t really that long. But it’s long to me. And it’s a decent chunk of US history. It can be anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the history of the country, depending on how you count. And it’s more than enough time for a person or a group of people to get set in their ways.

I’ve seen plenty of churches have a hard time adjusting to new circumstances. A generation grows up and starts aging into membership or even leadership. A neighborhood or even a town changes drastically over the years. And the congregation faces a hard question: Do we change what we’re doing? Or do we remain who we are? Do we maintain the ministries that we know, that we know how to do, or that we’re known for? Or do we change who we are because the people around us seem to want something different? Do we change our habits and lose the church culture we’ve grown up with, the church culture that feels like home to us?

Now, my bias, my instinct, is to say, “Yes. Of course you do!” God’s call is a call to leave our home, to give up things that make us comfortable in this world for the sake of being a blessing to others. One of the things Jesus identified as “spiritual malpractice” was, “putting your traditions ahead of the word of God.” I never want a church to feel like a club instead of a…I dunno…a free clinic?

But conversations like this one make me stop and think about the fact even answering that question that way means I have actually bought into a false dichotomy. A false binary. A friend of mine likes to sarcastically say that, the good thing about American politics, is that it makes room for all two possible opinions a person can have about government. And while putting our traditions ahead of the word of God is obviously something to avoid, when our traditions are in conflict with God’s demands our traditions should lose every time, maybe we also sometimes imagine there’s conflict there when there isn’t.

Whether we’re conservative or progressive, if we live in the US, or if we live in a US expat community, or we’re saturated with US culture and pop culture, we probably have a bias toward revolution. Or maybe reinvention’s a better word. A bias toward reinvention.

Heck, it’s not even just a personal bias. It’s also built into the systems we use to communicate. It’s easier to market a new TV show, or get your friends to check out a new TV show, than a show that’s been around for a while but has suddenly gotten really, really good. How many of us have talked to someone who couldn’t get into PARKS AND RECREATION, but also refused to skip the first season? Even when it came to this podcast, we talked about the fact that new shows get special treatment in all of the discovery algorithms, and whether it would make sense to start a new podcast rather than start producing new seasons of this one. Revolution or reinvention is just something Americans are conditioned toward. In a lot of aspects of life, we give new things a chance, rather than wait for new things to prove themselves. (More on that in episode 49.)

When that’s our impulse, when that’s the cultural water we’re swimming in, it’s easy to misread Jesus. It’s easy to think he said, “Keeping any tradition is at odds with the word of God,” not, “I’m calling you out for elevating your traditions over the word of God.” But churches like Mt. Moriah prove that we can act in the present, and really, truly meet the needs of the moment, while still being rooted in history. The church planted in one neighborhood. The neighborhood around them changed, so they changed the things they were doing to meet their neighbors and meet their needs. Then they moved to a new neighborhood, and they changed again. And then COVID hit and they changed things again. But even as they did this, it was still a lot of the same people in the congregation. They didn’t change the things that made this specific gathering of Jesus’ body…THIS specific gathering of Jesus’ body.

When the circumstances around us change, we can change what we’re doing to meet those circumstances without betraying who God is calling us to be.

Prayer

Lord you are the great healer. In fact, you are the healer. Our communities can only find health in you. There are very few times when we, as a community, get to see that so up close. But this conversation on this podcast deals with with church leaders who are trying, in good ways, to be agents of renewal, helping to restore health and well-being in their neighborhoods through vaccine distributions.

As it says in Jeremiah, seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf for, in its welfare, you will find your welfare.

We often think of the doctors in our churches, and we often think of the nurses in our communities who are, day-in-and-day-out, serving the welfare and health of those around them. But in this conversation, we get to see how you also work through other people and other channels to restore health and well-being in these communities.

We look for new ways to better educate those around us about the benefits of different health technologies that you have enabled to allow us to get back to normal and win this pandemic.

Lord, may you grant discernment for those who are trying to explain fact from fiction to those who may be skeptical. May we speak well to those around us and find new ways to bring truth, and to help those in the healthcare industry better serve our community and get these vaccines in arms.

Show us how church communities can foster that hope in an age when we have a hard time finding trust. May the institution built around you , the Bride of Christ, may we be an emissary of truth to those around us.

Lord, bless this conversation and bless those who listened to it, that they can further serve you.

Amen.

 

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Faith in Place

A brand-new devotional guide connecting you to God’s heart for the place where you live, available now from the Center for Christian Civics!

I'm Interested in bringing A Church Beyond the Poles to My Church, School or Organization