Providing love, hope, and care for neighbors through The ELI Project

By: Erin Blackford

Erin Blackford is one of seven young adults spending the summer interning with The ELI Project, a Minnesota Conference program designed to help college students explore a call to vocational ministry. She has spent June and July at the United Methodist Church of Anoka. Here, she reflects on what she's experienced and learned.
 
My palms were sweaty, my knees weak, my arms heavy; this perfectly described the physical state of my body as I approached the pulpit to give my first sermon ever. As I walked to the front of the room, I crossed my fingers, said a quick prayer for confidence and courage, and proceeded to plunk my sermon notes down onto the podium. As I looked up and stared into the eyes of the waiting congregation, I found myself starting to smile due to a combination of nerves and adrenaline. Having been an athlete all my life, and a college softball player to boot, I can only liken the experience to approaching the plate with bases loaded and two outs. The walk to the pulpit to deliver my first sermon was truly a heart-racing, fear-inducing, stomach-rolling, thrilling and exciting, amazing experience.
 
This summer, I applied for and was selected to participate in a wonderful internship program called The ELI Project. The goal is to directly immerse young adults within the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church by assigning them to different churches and providing hands-on experience.
 
I was assigned to serve at the United Methodist Church of Anoka (UMCA). This amazing church welcomed me with open arms. The average congregant is perhaps between the ages of 60 and 70, with a few younger families scattered amongst the crowds of older individuals and couples. Despite the generational gap, members of the congregation graciously allowed me to come into their lives.
 
During the typical work week, I filled my time by researching different outreach opportunities for the church, reading the bible in order to further my own knowledge, writing thank you cards and notes of encouragement for members of the congregation, and visiting hospitals and rehab clinics for pastoral care requests. I did a ton of writing and planning. I wrote opening prayers, prayers of dedication, calls to worship, context for scripture readings, and so much more. My writing became instrumental to my role as an intern. My prayers and calls to worship were used during services to spread the word of God and provide a message of love and kindness. I could have never anticipated the impact my writing would have on the hundred or so members of UMCA. This internship allowed me to use my passion for writing and prayer to better the lives of my neighbors, to spread my love for God and Jesus Christ throughout my community.

I was also given the opportunity to plan an entire service. To craft my own worship schedule was both thrilling and daunting. I got to decide every single detail of my service, down to what hymns we were going to sing and what scripture I wanted to preach on. Thank goodness I was assigned the most amazing mentor EVER, Laura Hannah, because without her I would’ve been lost on where to start. She helped me choose a passage from the Book of Esther to preach upon, and helped edit both my sermon and both of the prayers I wrote for the service. Thanks to her handy tips and tricks, I was able to create an order of worship that I am very proud of. Being given the opportunity to deliver a message, and especially a message that I strongly believe in and identify with, was rewarding beyond words. And while approaching the pulpit was nerve-wracking and thrilling all at once, I can say with confidence that the experience of delivering a sermon and allowing the congregation to get to know me better was easily a highlight of this internship.

In addition to writing and reading, I spent plenty of time exercising my creativity. During my second week on the job, UMCA hosted its annual week of Vacation Bible School. This year’s theme? Barnyard Bible Camp. Before you ask, yes, I did dress up as a farmer and speak with a twang all week. I was given free rein of the craft hut and granted the opportunity to spend a week teaching amazing children about the grace and love of God using paint, glue, and paper. What more could an education major ask for? Perhaps clearer instructions since we teachers love rubrics, but sometimes life throws instructions to the wind and allows wonderful opportunities for freedom and improvisation to occur. This internship required me to think fast on my feet and be flexible, which I think are important life skills that I needed a refresher for. I laughed more during that week of VBS than I have in years.

Perhaps the greatest gifts I received from completing this internship are the relationships I formed while serving. I have formed an awesome bond with my mentor Laura, the director of ministries for UMCA. Everyone who works for the church and everyone who volunteers and donates their time and resources loves the church and each other so much. I feel so blessed to have been placed with such wonderful people who I have grown to love as friends and mentors. I am confident that I have formed a friend for life in Laura.

Overall, this internship has been a blessing. I have had so many incredible experiences that I shall cherish for the rest of my life. The opportunity to provide love, hope, and care for my neighbors was life-changing and I am so thankful.