Young Adult Volunteer alumna leads two Presbyterian churches in rural Montana
by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — As her college graduation approached, Maggie Lewis remembers feeling that God was calling her to be a missionary in Africa. She didn’t know exactly how to make that happen, so she decided to do some research.
“I went to the computer lab and started Googling ‘missionary in Africa,’ and that’s when the Young Adult Volunteer program popped up,” said Lewis, who grew up in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She initially thought she’d apply to serve as a YAV in Africa or Northern Ireland or Nashville, Tennessee, all of which were among the available YAV sites that year.
While home in California during a break from school, Lewis remembers thinking, “Let me look one more time at all the sites and just make sure that I didn’t miss something.” That’s when she saw “Chinook, Montana” had been added to the list. She interviewed with staff from three YAV sites and ended up choosing Chinook.
Lewis and two other YAVs were placed at the Chinook site, but a couple months before YAV orientation, the other two young people gave up their spots for one reason or another. At around one month before orientation, Lewis received a call from the national YAV office, suggesting that she might consider going to New Orleans instead of serving alone at Chinook, a first-year YAV site and the most rural of all YAV sites.
“I’m not one that really advocates for myself in this way, but I said, ‘No, I really want to go to Chinook.’ I just felt this strong sense of call,” Lewis explained.
She ended up being the first and only YAV at the Chinook site during its first year, 2012–13.
“Once I got to Chinook, I just loved that it was such a community,” Lewis said. “Really, the whole town is the YAV site. I lived with a Presbyterian pastor and her family. The people all welcomed me and included me in things. I saw the same people in the pews on Sunday that I worked with in my placements during the week and saw at the basketball game on Friday night.”
After growing up in an urban environment, having a rural experience was a draw for Lewis, she said. “This is a town of 1,200 and I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Lewis said. “I didn’t even know at that time what ‘small town’ meant. Really, for me, it was immersing myself in something entirely different.”
In 2018, six years after Lewis’ YAV year in Chinook, about 70 congregants, church officials, friends and family gathered at Chinook Presbyterian Church to celebrate the ordination of the Rev. Maggie Lewis as a minister of Word and Sacrament in Glacier Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and to install her as pastor for Chinook and Havre Presbyterian churches.
In retrospect, Lewis can see so many reasons that her YAV experience in Chinook shouldn’t have lined up. But it did, and the same with seminary.
“When I left Chinook, I didn’t immediately go to seminary,” Lewis said. “My plan was to do a master’s in social work, so that’s what I did in Iowa City for the first year, which just wasn’t the right fit for me. So, I ended up going to University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, which actually is really strong in rural ministry.” She was supposed to graduate with her cohort there in 2017, but ended up having an extra year of seminary due to a family crisis.
At first it was a great disappointment to have to be in school longer, not graduating with friends. But now she can see it was part of God’s plan, she said. “Chinook and Havre weren’t looking for a pastor when I would have graduated. However, due to the timing, it just all lined up.”
Another redeeming aspect is that just before the family emergency, Lewis was contacted by the United Church of Christ’s Wisconsin Conference and offered a part-time job pastoring two rural churches during her last year of seminary. “That perfectly set me up for the two churches I have here,” Lewis said.
“In some ways preaching twice on a Sunday is all I’ve ever known.”
From the beginning of her full-time call to pastor two churches, Lewis has been careful to set up office hours. She’s in each community two days a week. On Sunday, one congregation worships at 9 a.m. and the other at 11 a.m., which leaves time between for coffee, conversation and a 20-minute drive to the second service.
“It’s a pretty good rhythm, actually,” Lewis said. “I think the two churches together really make a nice full-time call.”
In mid-March when things were beginning to shut down for much of the world, a snowfall — rather than COVID — canceled service. By the next weekend it became clear that in-person services were canceled because of COVID.
“It’s been very fluid, of course. Like every other pastor in the country, I’ve had to learn very quickly how to be a televangelist and a video editor, neither of which I particularly love doing,” Lewis said.
“I’d say almost all the way through the summer, we didn’t see much [COVID], especially in the rural communities that I’m in.” Near the end of April, the governor allowed in-person worship, but both Chinook and Havre waited another six weeks after that before returning to in-person worship. Then, in the fall, both communities were hit hard by the pandemic, making it necessary to go back to virtual worship. Recently, they have returned to in-person services with videos being posted online to a lesser extent.
“We’ve reached more people than we typically do in the pews,” Lewis said of virtual services. “People who have grown up in the church have found us again. My family members and friends from different states have been watching and interacting. It’s been a learning curve. I’ve learned more in the last year than I think I ever wanted to know.”
Lewis serves as chairperson of the YAV Board in Chinook and works closely with the Rev. Jack Mattingly, YAV site coordinator. They both interview prospective YAVs to determine if Chinook is a good fit. YAVs who are placed in Chinook, two or three each year, are housed in a homestay model, living with families who are a resource in getting acquainted with the community and its people. Mattingly is pastor of the Chinook United Methodist Church and Harlem Yoked Parish, a congregation of the United Methodist Church and the PC(USA) in Harlem, Montana.
In addition to her YAV Board chairperson responsibilities, Lewis serves on the Committee on Ministry and the Personnel Committee for Glacier Presbytery and as part of the Greater Havre Ministerial Association. She also stepped in for a couple months to serve as interim stated clerk of the presbytery when interim assistance was needed.
What do Chinook YAVs do? The opportunities are varied, Lewis said. Some tutor and assist in classrooms at an elementary school. They may assist with classroom activities in a preschool or teach lessons in an afterschool church-school program that meets weekly. Some have helped with an ecumenical youth group and accompanied the group on mission trips. Others have served at the local library or food pantry. Some lead Bible studies at a nursing home or bond with residents of a senior living apartments, whom they adopt as grandmas and grandpas.
If YAVs have particular gifts, the site coordinator and board work together to find placements that work well with their strengths. The Chinook YAV site has many different denominations working together. The YAVs are encouraged to have a Presbyterian church as their home church, but they also have opportunities to worship in all the other churches.
“I just love that Chinook is a YAV site,” Lewis said. “I think that a rural church isn’t part of a separate conversation, but is part of the same conversation as Boston, New York, Korea. I think for the community here, it has affirmed that their ministry is as important as all these other places.” She said rural Montanans don’t always get to meet people from New Jersey, for example, and by interacting with different people, lifestyles and experiences, the people of Chinook have had a chance to become part of the YAVS’ journey as well.
“My churches are small in numbers, but I would say that we have almost 100% participation,” Lewis said. “They care for one another. They bring meals to one another. They call one another. They come to events when we have them. I think that is really special and part of the reason I love being the pastor at both churches. They really love one another, and they show up for one another all the time.”
Give to the Pentecost Offering to continue the valuable work of the Young Adult Volunteer Program.
The Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program is an ecumenical, faith-based service opportunity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at sites throughout the U.S. and around the world. YAVs ages 19-30 accompany local agencies to embody the Matthew 25 vision of dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty and building congregational vitality. Alongside this work, volunteers explore the meaning of their Christian faith and accountability to their neighbors in the community with peers and mentors. The YAV year is August to August. Applications are being accepted now. Learn more and apply.
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Categories: Special Offerings, Young Adult Volunteers
Tags: chinook, chinook first presbyterian church, Havre presbyterian church, jack Mattingly, maggie lewis, montana, pcusa, pentecost offering, presbyterian, rural, Special Offerings, yav, yav site, yavs, young adult volunteers
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Ministries: Young Adult Volunteers