South Georgia UM churches help families, students, schools


By Kara Witherow, Editor

Rev. Chrissy Ruehl has never felt more like a deacon.

Rev. Ruehl, Isle of Hope United Methodist Church’s Minister of Children and Families, is helping connect the church and the world in ways she never before imagined.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country have scrambled to minimize the impact and spread of the disease while still providing instruction. Some began later than usual, others started virtually, and other districts offered hybrid models. 

When Rev. Ruehl and her husband, John, a Presbyterian minister, learned that Savannah and Chatham County schools would be starting virtually this fall instead of in person, they knew they had to do something to help students and families.

Tapped by Savannah mayor Van Johnson, together the Ruehls formed the RISE Coalition (Religious Institutions Supporting Education), an interfaith group that has helped seven Savannah-area churches create virtual learning centers in their spaces.

One of those churches, Isle of Hope UMC, serves 40 children in its e-learning program. Rev. Ruehl estimates that 25 percent of the children in the program are Isle of Hope UMC members or staff members’ children while the other 75 percent are from the community. She estimates about 30 percent are from single-parent homes.

Rev. Ruehl understands the community’s need for the small, supervised virtual learning pods. Her children – a seven-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son — are among those who began the year learning virtually.

“(The virtual learning centers) are such a vital part of the church’s mission now,” she said. “This is the need now.”

Across town, Mosaic Church, a United Methodist congregation in Savannah, has turned its fellowship hall into a one-room schoolhouse. About a dozen elementary-school students meet there each day to learn virtually in a safe environment with the needed technology.

The church has also allowed the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System to park a mini WiFi station – a school bus outfitted with mobile WiFi hotspots – in its parking lot. This allows the wireless Internet signal to be blasted to families and students in nearby neighborhoods.

“We’re not here to duplicate school,” said Mosaic pastor Rev. Drew Young. “We couldn’t do that. We’re trying, as best we can, to be of aid and assistance.”

In Dougherty County, parents were worried about how they were going to juggle work and the demands of virtual learning.

Knowing of the need for a safe learning environment for children, Albany First United Methodist Church launched its Virtual Learning Support (VLS) program with 40 children and a waiting list.

Serving children in grades kindergarten through fifth grade, the VLS program’s main focus is to help working families.

Director Kim Hunter believes the program is the church putting its beliefs in action.

“This is what the body (of Christ) is supposed to do,” she said. “We’re supposed to be the light and salt. We’re providing for parents and families that need it and we’re providing a place for kids to come and get love and hugs and smiles and feel like they’re a part of a community.”

Even those churches who don’t open as virtual learning sites are able to serve the community and meet needs.

Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Savannah is collecting essential supplies – masks, disinfecting wipes, paper towels, sanitizer, and more – that will be distributed to children who are attending a virtual learning center at a nearby YMCA.

As a “resource hub,” Trinity UMC will collect, house, and package the supplies until they’re ready for use. They’re also partnering with Loop It Up Savannah, a local community art program, to help resource the virtual learners.

And in a continuing partnership with nearby Gadsden Elementary School, the congregation is revamping its Backpack Buddies program and continuing its mentoring ministry via Zoom.

“It’s a way to be the Church. The point is to be the hands and feet of Christ and to let them know that they’re loved by this church,” said Rev. Ben Gosden. “We’ve always thought that reaching out beyond the walls of our church, especially to help children, mirrors what Jesus would be doing.”

And across the state in Bainbridge, Karen Forrester, a member of Bainbridge First United Methodist Church, didn’t hesitate to say yes when asked to help oversee three first grade students’ virtual learning for two weeks.

“I enjoyed doing this; I helped the parents and kids and it was good for me, too,” said Forrester, who taught for 30 years at Bainbridge’s John Johnson Elementary School.

While schools in Decatur County started face-to-face on Aug. 31, they began virtually two weeks prior. Working parents either had to find help or take time off from work to help facilitate learning.

“I love to teach,” said Forrester, who retired two years ago. “I had to help.”

Helping others is what believers are called to do, said Hunter.

“We’re being what the Body of Christ is supposed to be,” she said.