|Lois Kreitman, Dorothy Smith, Doris Mehaffey, Connie Watts and Deb Mehaffey sing a song during the final service as Mary Robertson accompanies them.|
For many long-time congregants, it was an emotional service. Tears streamed down the cheeks of communion stewards as they passed out the sacred elements for the final time.
Doris Ray had been active in the church since 1960.
“It was just unreal,” she said following the service. “It hasn’t set in yet. It was just... unreal.”
A dwindling and aging membership and financial difficulties brought the church to a point where it was no longer feasible to continue. About a year ago, a straw poll showed the majority of the congregation favored dissolving. The writing was on the wall, but the North Bend Methodists did not give up hope.
“I thought a miracle would happen,” Ray said.
A church-saving miracle didn’t happen, but many of the members would tell you the next best thing did happen when Certified Lay Minister Dorothy Smith was assigned to the church.
“When Dorothy came she kind of livened things up,” Ray said, “but by then they knew we were going to close. It was too late to get started. If they had done this a couple of years ago, we’d have made it.”
When Smith, a resident of Hooper, arrived in July, the North Bend rumor mill had already pronounced the Methodist church dead. Smith wanted to hear none of it.
“I’m not exactly the kind of person that’s cut out to be a hospice nurse,” she said. “I said, ‘If that’s God’s will, then that’s what’s going to happen, but we’re not going to just lie down and die. We’re not just going to curl up in the corner and wait for the end.’ That’s just not my personality.”
Smith moved Sunday services from 8:30 to 9 a.m. and started an adult Sunday school class. She was told it would never work, but 10 to 12 people showed up every week for the class.
“That’s half of the congregation,” Smith pointed out.
The Methodists enjoyed Cowboy day at church, where everyone wore western clothing, or at least a bandana. They sang music from the old country on Polka Sunday, and wore flowered shirts and sang Christian lyrics to Don Ho melodies on Hawaiian Sunday. (Try singing “Jesus Loves Me” to the tune of “Tiny Bubbles,” Smith challenged.) Smith showed off her ventriloquism skills during a children’s sermon, even though the church didn’t have any children.
“People wanted to laugh again,” Smith said, “because already for a year they’d been looking towards the end of this church and they were just getting sadder and sadder and sadder. And we were like, ‘No. We’re tired of being sad.’ So we laughed.”
|The Methodist congregation sings a hymn as sunlight streams through the stained glass window on a snowy morning.|
The average attendance for Sunday worship during Smith’s six months in the pulpit was 18, up from an average of 12 during the previous year. But it wasn’t enough.
The building needed maintenance that the church couldn’t afford. There was no money to fund mission work.
“It’s a very spirit filled congregation,” Smith said, “but the median age now is probably 75, and a lot of them are in their 80s. This year I had one funeral, and two people moved to an assisted living facility in another community. So even in six months, we lost three people.”
With a membership totalling in the low 50s, losing three people in half a year is a significant blow, and younger families were not replacing the members that the church was losing.
Many in the Methodist flock will tell you that the efforts of Doris Mehaffey were instrumental in keeping the church alive during its final years, though she will accept no credit.
“It was God’s will, not mine,” she said. “I don’t have any other answer for that.”
In September, the congregation cast a nearly unanimous vote to dissolve.
Last Sunday, Jan. 2, the North Bend Methodist Church held its last regular service. In place of a sermon, the members shared stories and memories of their time in the church. Smith compared the service to a family prayer meeting the night before a funeral, a chance to let the emotion out so you don’t fall apart during the funeral.
Later that day, the church’s contents were auctioned off, with the stipulation that items in the sanctuary remain until after Sunday’s deconsecration service. Seeing 152 years of history going to the highest bidder was a tough pill to swallow for some.
“It felt like being a farm sale where it’s a fourth-generation farm and you suddenly find yourself in backruptcy, and they’re selling your family farm out from under you,” Smith said. “It felt like that. It was very painful.”
At Sunday’s [Jan. 9, 2011] deconsectration service, Flanagan, the district superintendent, compared the congregations uncertain future to the disciples shortly after Jesus’s death. A women’s quintet sang “In Rememberance of Me.” After Flanagan read the declaration of deconsecration, the congregants filed out of pews that would be hauled away later that day, formed a circle around the sanctuary, joined hands and prayed.
After the service, people enjoyed a catered meal in the Doane Room, where more stories were told and hugs shared.
Judy Ray, Doris Ray’s daughter, came up from Lincoln for the service. She remembers a time when she was part of an active youth group at the church from 1960 until her high school graduation in 1968.
“I still have injuries on my ankle from the shuffleboard pucks,” Judy Ray said. “We got a little wild.”
Memories of playing the chopsticks on the piano and roughousing with other kids during pot lucks came flooding back as Ray spent what is likely her final moments in the church she grew up in.
“It’s just hard to let go,” Judy Ray said. “I’m not even really religious. I don’t go to church any more, but it’s just like a family breaking up. Like somebody died.”
The proceeds from the auction and possible sale of the building go to the Nebraska Methodist Conference, the governing body that oversees the state’s Methodist churches. Before the church dissovled it voted to donate the memorial money it had left in its funds to local causes. Half of it was donated to Camp Fontenelle, a Methodist youth camp northeast of Fremont. The remaining half was split between the North Bend new library fund and North Bend’s Veterans Memorial Park.
As for the church members, they will scatter. A large portion of the members transferred their membership to First Methodist in Fremont. Others joined Calvary Methodist in Fremont or the Methodist church in Schuyler. A few transferred to the Presbyterian church in North Bend.
Both Doris Mehaffey and Doris Ray said they have transferred their membership to Fremont but will attend the North Bend Presbyterian Church if they don’t feel like leaving town on a given Sunday.
The building itself will be put up for sale. Smith, who will return to her home church in Hooper and continue to study to become a licensed local pastor, said she hopes the church will be put to good use or be torn down.
“It’s just a building now,” Smith said. “It’s not a church. Out of respect for the congregation, I hope they don’t let it stand here empty. This church has seen 152 years of laughter and tears and joy. It deserves to hold laughter and tears and joy. If it can’t be a church, it should be a home, and if it can’t be a home, it should be burned down.”
The Methodists Womens group will continue to meet, most likely at the North Bend Senior Center. Doris Mehaffey is the president of the group and Doris Ray is secretary-treasurer.
Smith reflects on her sixth months at the North Bend church with a smile.
“I wanted it to be meaningful for them, but also for myself,” she said. “I think we accomplished that. I think people had fun and grew spiritually.”
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