Mission Impossible? … Not with God
by Rev. Patti Aupperlee
When they told me my inaugural ministry appointment was at First United Methodist Church in Pahokee, Florida, I thought the cabinet must have misheard God’s message.
How could I, an urban girl, lead a congregation in such an isolated, economically depressed rural area?
It was May, 2010. I had just graduated from Asbury’s Orlando campus with a Master of Divinity degree at the Orlando campus. A middle-aged mom about to embark on a new journey, following a calling I was only starting to understand.
Was this really what God intended? If it was, could I handle it?
My husband, Paul, and I prayed and promised to be faithful — even if it meant moving to Pahokee. It felt like a punishment. And sounded like a Samaria.
Now, four years later, I’m still here — in a beautiful, 95-year-old church at the bottom of Lake Okeechobee, surrounded by sugarcane, muck and poverty. Part of a glorious, God-loving community, where people still feel the calling to “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.”
This is, indeed, God’s plan.
Over the last three decades, the people of Pahokee have gone from enjoying the quaint, middle-class prosperity of Mayberry RFD to scraping by in one of the poorest parts of the state.
I have come to admire the pioneers who made their way through the Glades and built a community of faith in the middle of the muck. The people here descended from those who survived the 1928 hurricane which claimed thousands of lives. Their grandparents helped transform the wilderness swamp into a vital farming community — which grew to be the winter harvest capital. When the church first opened, thousands of people were flocking to Pahokee, seeking prosperity through farming, bringing their families. The church was the center of their spiritual and social lives.
Then, in the 1970s, big sugar cane companies started moving in, farming became more mechanized — and people in Pahokee started losing their jobs. The car dealership closed; then the movie theater and the clothing stores and restaurants. Buildings began crumbling. Even the little hospital shut down.
By the time I arrived, the place looked like a ghost town — except for all the people. Unemployment is more than 35 percent, so adults are everywhere, on their porches, outside boarded stores, watching dozens of children play in the yards of fading housing projects.
I couldn’t see it at first. But after time, I came to realize. Despite all they have lost, and all they have to endure, the people of Pahokee still have faith. And those who stayed, who remained committed to the Glades and God, worked hard to keep the church light burning. Sometimes it was dim, but it never went out. Now it is beginning to get brighter.
People come to church today, as they have for almost a century, to worship and pray, sing and swap stories. But they also come to care for other people’s children, to exercise — and bake. To help their neighbors. To rebuild houses and lives.
I could not have handled this calling without my time at Asbury. My education came not only from the professors in the classroom, but also from discussions with my fellow students. Hanging out in the lounge between classes and taking our breaks together allowed us to connect with classmates from across the state who served in a variety of ministry settings.
That six-hour round-trip car ride wound up being a blessing, as my carpool-mates and I had time to dissect ideas and draw inspiration and insight from each other. Without them, I would not have had the breadth of background that allows me to serve such an historic church in such a remote part of Palm Beach County.
I would not have the dozens of volunteers that Asbury alumni bring from across Florida — mission teams who have helped repair countless Pahokee homes.
One of my classmates, Heather Hamilton Trapp, recently brought her youth group from Indian River City United Methodist Church in Titusville, FL to our tiny town for spring break. Instead of tanning on the beach or riding roller coasters at some theme park, this team of adults and teenagers fixed roofs and porches, weeded yards and painted doors for people they had never met, for people poorer than they ever knew was possible. They helped to heal holes and hearts in our small town.
When we thanked Heather and her team, she smiled and, instead, thanked us. “Our time in Pahokee was truly remarkable for both the students and leaders,” she wrote. “Joining with God’s work there at First United Methodist was a powerful lesson of love, humility and hope. Hope is very much alive there in Pahokee. It was truly a privilege.”
Today, in Pahokee, a new generation of pioneers exists. We don’t plant sugarcane or corn, but we plant seeds of hope for our neighbors. And continue to harvest God’s grace.