March 09, 2023 | by JB Brayfindley
Editor's note: Go, Sow, Grow is a prayer initiative that launched early in 2022 in which local churches were invited to pray for one another in order to align our prayers for God's vision of growth and abundance to manifest among us. As a companion to that prayer ministry, we will be reaching out to circuits across our 5 districts to develop short profiles on the ministry of our local churches and include links for more information and how to get involved. Together, we are the church. #BeUMC
“We have a lot of variety in our circuit—some in rural farming valley communities, some in the foothills from tiny to medium to large size congregations,” states Rev. Jim Garrison serving as leader of the Merced Circuit. “The majority of appointments are cross racial… with a range in ministry approach [from] one [congregation] proclaiming itself a reconciling congregation and another poised to disaffiliate with the UMC and join GMC.”
Although diverse theologically and ethnically, worshiping differently, different sizes and in different size of communities, the churches complement one another by “sharing reports of effective ministries,” adds Garrison, “and frequently copy them.”
The circuit encompasses eleven churches in an area akin to the shape of a baseball diamond. It stretches 73 miles East to West from Oakhurst to Los Banos and 79 miles North to South from Livingston and Tranquility all the while straddling highway 99. Either direction, a drive across takes an hour and a half. “We’re a little bit spread out,” states Garrison pastoring Madera UMC located in the center of the circuit. “It takes all day to just spend a few hours together. So, we decided to still meet on Zoom two out of three times… our attendance is better if we are on Zoom.”
Garrison notes that the pastors appreciate building personal relationships with one another and often call on one another for help, for prayer and to share resources. Before COVID the group often went on a prayer retreat at a monastery. The group got together for a Christmas party adding spouses and retired clergy.
“We support one another,” sums up Garrison, “… learning from each other, sharing ministry ideas, asking for advice from each other, sharing resources [such as] food, COVID tests, curriculum.” Individual congregations have partnered in Hmong and Spanish ministries. With fires in Mariposa and flooding in Merced, the circuit churches shared their buildings to be used as staging areas and recruited volunteers. The circuit recently promoted a district special offering for the flood victims in Merced.
Merced UMC’s theme is “Welcoming, Engaged, Active” with strong emphasis on community engagement under the pastoral guidance by Rev. Ella Luna-Garza.
Madera UMC, served by Rev. James Garrison has a strong lay leadership and active discipleship program. The congregation has a high level of individual community involvement and is growing in congregational outreach.
Pastor Peter Suhn serves Los Banos UMC which is “famous for big VBS,” states Garrison. “It draws kids and workers from other churches.”
Tranquillity UMC, served by pastor Beth Stidham, focuses on community outreach and a ministry with those facing or grieving death. “It is a big, far reaching ministry despite its’ small size,” adds Garrison.
Siosaia Koloti serves a yoked parish including LeGrand UMC and Dos Palos UMC. LeGrand UMC is a “key stable identity in small community, strong lay leadership, community study group,” states Garrison. Dos Palos UMC focuses on outreach to those in need and ecumenical leadership in community.
Firebaugh-Mendota UMC, served by Rev. Bob Gilberg, is “adapting new methods and technology, with new worship styles,” states Garrison. “It has a strong emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Yeu Vang is appointed to Atwater UMC. Because Atwater is a former military base, the UMC includes retired military congregants. According to Garrison, the church is partnering in Hmong ministry.
Rev. Eric Cho serves Livingston UMC, a historically Japanese community with an aging congregation “doing what they can do with passion and excellence,” adds Garrison. The church is partnering with a ministry to Pakistanis in the area.
Mariposa UMC, pastored by Rev. Mark Buenafe, is “bringing a sense of renewed hope to the congregation and community,” states Garrison. The area has been hard hit in recent years with major fires. According to Garrison, the congregation continues prayers for the 2nd and 3rd responders – those who help rebuild.
Oakhurst New Community UMC, served by Rev. Jim Luther, is engaged with community. The congregation serves community meals every week feeding more than 160 people. The church also houses a Thrift store. “With an increased online worshipping community,” adds Garrison, the church reports an “ increased opportunity for newer and younger leadership.”