Being Matthew 25 people

Merged congregation of LoveJoy United Presbyterian Church takes on racism, poverty and building congregational vitality

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Karen Wilson, Sandy Monroe, the Rev. Daniel Ervin and Mary Cordes in front of the College Avenue Presbyterian Church in Alton, Illinois, which has been sold with proceeds funding Matthew 25 initiatives of the new LoveJoy United Presbyterian Church. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — As LoveJoy United Presbyterian Church (LUPC) in Wood River, Illinois, lives into its commitment to be a Matthew 25 congregation, it is seeking to empower every church member to discover their individual calling and gifts so they can go forth and serve.

“It doesn’t have to be serving on a committee at church,” said Karen Wilson, a ruling elder and chair of the Mission and Outreach Committee at LUPC. “It can be driving a neighbor to a doctor’s appointment or those kinds of things. You’re out there in the world seven days, not just Sunday mornings or the day the committee meets or whatever.”

In February, the session of LUPC accepted the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s invitation and voted to address all three Matthew 25 focus areas: building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.

“I think if we all just live by that [Matthew 25] what a world this would be,” said Wilson, adding that deacons are currently making calls to people in their care groups to make sure all — including children — are part of the congregation’s Matthew 25 work. They are also creating local, United States and world maps to show where they are making an impact.

The LUPC congregation was formed through the 2016 merger of College Avenue Presbyterian Church of Alton and United Presbyterian Church of Wood River, about 15 minutes apart. The merged church took its new name from Elijah Parish Lovejoy, the first pastor of Upper Alton Presbyterian Church, the predecessor of College Avenue Presbyterian Church. A pro-slavery mob shot and killed Loveioy for his strong stance against slavery and for freedom of the press.

The Alton congregation nested with the Wood River congregation for more than a year before discussions of merger began. “They couldn’t have been more welcoming,” Wilson said of United Presbyterian. “We just felt right at home as soon as we got there. It was really a good match for us.”

The congregations voted separately on merger in August 2016 and held their first service as LoveJoy United about a month later.

The former College Avenue congregation sold its building in December 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. LUPC formed a committee — LoveJoy United Philanthropic Crusaders — and gave it the task of recommending to session how proceeds from the sale of the church building in Alton should be used to continue to “joyfully serve through compassion, mission, justice and all-inclusive grace.”

As part of Matthew 25 work to address racism, poverty and church vitality, Rev. Daniel Ervin, pastor of LoveJoy United Presbyterian Church (left), and Tom Wyatt (right), present a grant to the Crisis Food Center in Alton, Illinois. (Contributed photo)

Thus far, the Crusaders have received session approval to donate to each of these local missions. They are currently working on other larger project ideas:

Community Hope Center ($1,000) — serves individuals and families experiencing financial hardship, whether temporary, short-term or long-term. Support includes help with groceries, clothing, toiletries, household items, meals, haircuts and other services to share hope and the love of Christ through action.

Crisis Food Center ($1,000) — provides one week of nutritionally balanced food monthly, as well as new and gently used clothing, to individuals and families in need.

OASIS Women’s Center ($1,000) — provides shelter for people experiencing domestic violence and their children. The donation from LUPC was quadrupled through a matching grant program.

Overnight Warming Center in Alton ($1,000) — provides a warm place to sleep and meals when temperatures dip below 20 degrees. Not all guests are unsheltered; some come to the center because their homes are not bearable on extremely cold nights.

Riverbend Family Ministries ($3,500) — provides resources for small nonprofit organizations to work together from a central location, providing individuals and families holistic support to be self-sufficient after trauma primarily from violence, addiction, poverty and homelessness.

Roxana School District ($1,000) — provides Christmas gifts for students in need.

Wood River-Hartford School District ($1,000) — provides Christmas gifts for students in need.

Deacon Mark Russell, a pastor and technology teacher, launched a group of patient, tech-savvy folks who are serving as “tech deacons.” Their mission is to help church members get connected for worship. They walk people through computer connection issues by phone or by visiting their homes.

The Rev. Daniel Ervin began serving as LUPC’s first pastor in October 2017. He grew up in Statesville, North Carolina, and received a bachelor’s in social work with a minor in Spanish at North Carolina State University. He earned a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and previously served as a resident minister at First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“I was a little bit concerned about how Daniel would relate to the older congregation members,” said Wilson, who served on the pastor search committee. “The little kids like him and the older people love him, too. He’s pretty fantastic.”

Graphic courtesy LoveJoy United Presbyterian Church

LUPC Elder Sandy Monroe describes the Matthew 25 vision as giving a congregation wings and a roadmap. “You know, you visit with those in prison. You feed those people who are hungry,” Monroe said. “Matthew 25 tells us what to do if we’re listening, and for a whole congregation to be focused on that — and actually for our entire denomination to be focused on that — what a change we can make in the world.”

On Tuesday, look for a Presbyterian News Service story written by the Rev. Daniel Ervin on how LoveJoy United Presbyterian Church adapted to online worship early on in the pandemic — with encouragement and help from a former moderator of the General Assembly.

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