Every Sunday morning in the Northeast Neighborhood, a commanding voice has wafted down the streets, sharing the love and word of God. This weekend, all listening ears are invited to come home to John Wesley United Methodist Church to share in the holy spirit.
John Wesley UMC has served Harrisonburg for 155 years over the course of three moves and a pandemic. While other churches closed their doors to keep the community safe, pastor Costella Forney moved services outside to open the congregation to anyone looking to connect with the Lord. Beginning Friday evening and going until Sunday, the church is celebrating its homecoming with a parking lot revival weekend with featured speakers.
Mayor Deanna Reed grew up attending John Wesley UMC and can trace her family’s history back to her great, great grandparents attending services at the same church. Reed said she considers the church her “home church,” and is proud of how it has opened its doors and touched the hearts of nearby residents while other services are canceled.
“You’ll find there are people who drive into the service or people sitting on their porches at their home listening to the service or people walking past, and they stop and listen for a while,” she said. “It’s going beyond the church walls, so to speak, and I believe they’re reaching more people, more souls this way than when they were inside the building.”
Reed is the homecoming speaker for this weekend and will present on Sunday morning.
On Friday evening, Minister Audre King of Luray kicked off the homecoming celebration. King is the grandson of former John Wesley Rev. Dalco King Sr.
Tonight, Rev. Sharon Bowers, who serves as Director of the Inclusion and Dialogue Center and is Associate Chaplain at Emory & Henry College, will share a message with the church.
Lay leader Felicia Thomas said this year has been difficult on people, so taking the time to gather and listen is important.
“During this time, we all need God, and we’re being creative,” Thomas said. “Doors are closed, but we’re still here to help you in any ways we can.”
Before the pandemic, the average attendance was approximately 25 people, according to Thomas. Since bringing services outside, she said between 30 to 60 cars can be spotted in the parking lot, listening to the word of God.
Thomas said the outdoor services are revolutionary and broadening the reach of the church because it strips away the judgment of how you come or how you look.
“People have a perspective of what church is, so we continue to let people know our doors are open,” she said. “It’s OK to show your fears, it’s OK to show your joys, it’s OK.”
Whether coming home to the church for the first time or after years away, homecoming means different things for everyone. Thomas and Forney are cousins who grew up in the church and both left in adulthood, Thomas for college and Forney for another ministry, but they said God brought them back for their own homecoming.
This year’s homecoming features a revival aspect — a dedication to lifted spirits — according to Forney.
“The revival is to stir people up. Get people up from their depression, out of the worry, out of their fear and get our attention back on God, and that will protect us,” she said.
Forney said the church began falling off from annual traditions and celebrations but saw 155 years as a historical anniversary that called for celebration, even if the community cannot gather over a meal as it had before.
“We need to celebrate. When Jesus opened the Earth, there were feasts and celebrations, and we don’t celebrate like we used to,” Forney said. ”I’m like Dorothy, clicking my heels, ‘There’s no place like home.’ It’s important to honor our milestones and give God credit for keeping us so long.”
After years of loss in the community, Forney said the church is inviting anyone and everyone to heal together.
“I want the world to see, I want the Valley to see, I want Harrisonburg to see, God is alive and working to restore,” she said. “You can enjoy church. It’s not something you do once a week; it’s a backbone. It’s kept us together as a community. ... It can still keep us going.”