How a Hickory church is taking on the digital divide among local students, seniors

The people of First UMC in Hickory have found a way to respond to two of their community’s most pressing needs. In doing so, they show us a model for local mission work in the 21st century.

The initiative involves technology (tablets, laptops, charging stations), dedicated space in a church building and the commitment of a faithful band of volunteers.

Here’s how it works: First UMC hosts an after-school tutoring program called Cub Camp for K-2 students from Southwest Elementary, among the most economically challenged schools in Catawba County. A volunteer takes the church van to pick up a group of children at the school, located in the Longview neighborhood near I-40.

While students are in school, the church doesn’t let its tech devices collect dust. Instead, these resources are used to support a ministry for homebound seniors. Older adults – some of whom had never used the internet – can use laptops and tablets to read, attend online courses or just listen to music.

This is how the congregation is simultaneously taking on the digital divide that afflicts students from lower-income backgrounds and also addressing the “loneliness epidemic” among the elderly and homebound.

“Our mission is to love God and love our neighbor,” said Rev. Paul Christy, the church’s senior pastor. “This is allowing us to meet and be in ministry with folks who we normally would not be.”

A grant from the Reynolds Ministry Fund served as a catalyst. It allowed the church to establish a computer lab with tables, office chairs, devices and related equipment.

At the center of the effort is Frieda Duncan, coordinator of the church’s older adult visitation program. Frieda’s past experience as a computer lab specialist at an elementary school in nearby Lincolnton inspired her to pursue this project. Five retired teachers in the congregation stepped up to serve as reading buddies and homework tutors.

On Wednesdays, the church sends children home with hot meals prepared in the First UMC kitchen.

“We’re impacting their lives not just through computers, but being there for them,” said Frieda. “We’re touching their hearts and their minds. That’s what makes it valuable.”

The “digital divide” refers to the gap between people who have access to information and communication technology— phones, personal computers and the internet — and those who have little or no access to it, often because of their place of residence or demographics.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, only 59.4% of North Carolina households subscribe to reliable, high-speed internet. The American Community Survey found that almost 25% of households do not subscribe to any internet services at all.

Reaching the socially isolated

Meanwhile, a growing number of experts describe loneliness as a public health crisis, particularly among older adults. Research has shown that prolonged and severe loneliness harms an individual’s health and welfare.

One in every four Catawba County residents 65 and up lives alone, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services Division of Aging and Adult Services.

In the age of COVID-19, the church had to envision different ways to reach out to the homebound.  Volunteers send cards, provide flowers and vegetables from the church’s Parable Garden and share special occasion “blessing bags” of snacks, tissues, note pads and the like.

The church opens its doors on Wednesdays for Seniors Morning Out, a half-day program sponsored by the county. Adults 60 and older take part in nutrition and healthy living classes, games, crafts and more.

“Most of them are not members of our church, but they call this ‘their church’ now,” Paul said.

This is the kind of ministry that inspired the late Royce Reynolds and his wife, Jane. Acting on their lifelong Christian faith and passion for supporting Methodist churches, the Greensboro couple created the Royce and Jane Reynolds Ministry Fund to invest in endeavors that make disciples of Jesus Christ.

The pandemic has prompted church leaders to think beyond the pews, says Caroline Cox, director of Reynolds Ministries and Programs.

“Many of the examples of innovation we’ve seen are intended not only for regular church attendees, but also folks on the margins,” Caroline said. “Adaptability is essential for church survival. We’ve been inspired to see ministries like the one at First UMC Hickory.”

All the pieces work in unison to allow First UMC to be the hands and feet of Christ. As Frieda put it: “It’s amazing how God brought this together.”

"This is allowing us to meet and be in ministry with folks who we normally would not be."

- Rev. Paul Christy

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