On Sunday, June 21, 2015, Pharr UMC held a service of discontinuance of the congregation and deconsecration of the church property. It was a brief but emotional service, after 103 years of active ministry. What is important, however, is the way the faithful people of Pharr UMC came to their decision, and the legacy they are sharing with the church at large.
Pharr UMC was long a church that took seriously the needs of its neighbors. In 1973, they gave birth to what would become the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, where 1 of every 2 children lives at or below the poverty line. The church served as home to the Pharr Literacy Project and launched the Pharr Community Outreach Project as a Shalom Zone of the General Board of Global Ministries. English as a Second Language and Citizen Preparation classes were standard fare, and the church was home to sewing classes, computer classes, a thrift shop, a home repair program, Justice For Our Neighbors immigration legal aid, a food pantry that recently engaged as many as 70 people in worship, and Sunday worship that was intentionally bilingual, with translation equipment and bulletins prepared in both languages. Members included Anglos who had belonged since the 1940s, Valley native Latinos, and newer immigrant families.
The liabilities of the church were two main things--the building and the lack of a stable financial base. In 2013, the church agreed to conduct a self-assessment and shared the results with me. They found that everything the church was receiving in offerings each month went to insure, light, cool, heat, and constantly repair the aging structure. What little salary the church could afford to pay its pastor and devoted secretary and to use for non-building expenses came from special donations and the proceeds of various fundraisers during the year. After much conversation, deliberation, and prayer, the congregation came to the decision this spring that the faithful path would be to end the life of Pharr UMC, in order to allow its ministries to continue.
In the aftermath of that decision, Pharr UMC has been the giver of great gifts for ministry. Weslaco First UMC has received a freezer for their food pantry, as well as the Bernina sewing machines, with plans of starting sewing classes there. They also hope to house the home repair program. Manos Juntas, in Rio Bravo, Mexico, has received a sound system, computers and a printer, tables and chairs and a set of handmade chancel furnishings. Computers and children's books will be held in reserve by El Mesías UMC for a hoped-for chapter of Project Transformation. Altar candles, acolyte robes and hymnals went to Los Wesleyanos UMC in San Juan, Mission First UMC received Godly Play materials, and St. George Orthodox Church received tables. Pharr La Trinidad UMC has warmly received the transfer of many Pharr UMC members and is hosting the food pantry, as they discern ways to make it even more fruitful. Many kitchen items and the main chancel furniture have also found their home at La Trinidad. It is a complex process to find a new church home, especially after the loss of one so dear. But these faithful United Methodists are praying and working to find the path toward a new future, for the sake of the community Christ has called them to reach.
The order for disbanding a congregation ends with the following declaration:
This congregation...was God's gift for a season.
We are thankful for the many ways it has served the mission given to it by Jesus Christ.
It has accomplished its purpose.
We declare that it is no longer a United Methodist congregation and is now disbanded.
But Christ's holy Church is of God,
and will be preserved to the end of time...
We remain part of Christ's ongoing Church,
and as we scatter into other congregations
we shall be one with Christ, one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world,
until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
May it be so.
This article was written by El Valle District Superintendent Laura Merrill.