But God—How Harris Hill UMC triumphed through the pandemic
When COVID-19 swept the globe starting in March 2020, churches in UNY scrambled to start services in new ways. Like many churches, Katie Zettle, the pastor at Harris Hill UMC and her leadership team began connecting with congregants digitally.
Katie said, “We had to find ways to reach the people of church without gathering, and what we thought would be two or three weeks turned into months of quarantine and separation. At first, I and the accompanist met at the church to record music and a message. It was simple and could be put on the church Facebook page at any time. Leadership decided that it was important to connect with our people, so we immediately decided to have each person call a list of names to connect and to find out if there were any needs.”
The Harris Hill UMC leadership team also met on Zoom weekly and by May 2020, the church began offering Sunday services via FM transmitter radio. The parking lot filled with people listening to the service in their cars.
Harris Hill continued over 30 missions throughout the pandemic and started some new missions.
Katie said, “We partnered with a local restaurant to feed those in need, and we delivered meals to hospital workers. Mother’s Day found us adopting all 38 workers from Heritage Christian (those who serve and care for the disabled) and we were able to purchase and deliver meals for their entire families. We have continued to bake cookies for the homeless through Hearts for the Homeless each month…
We as a church have also learned the importance of connecting with essential workers during this time. We have prayed for and left small tokens of thanks at the local Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, the State Police, the Clarence Fire hall, and an Indian restaurant near the church who has fed many people for free during the pandemic. We have helped those in need of hotel rooms, gift cards for food, and covered many in prayer. We have been mindful of small businesses that were closed due to State regulations.”
In Sept. 2020, when the congregation felt it was safe to start offering in-person services in the sanctuary, following COVID-19 safety guidelines, some community members who only ever attended Harris Hill UMC in their cars started regularly attending the Sunday morning services in the sanctuary.
Katie mentioned one gentleman in particular; she said, “Someone was watching online…in June he decided to attend the outdoor service in his car…he and wife have since joined church. He said to me, ‘I need to become a member of this church.’”
Harris Hill UMC’s congregation started growing.
And starting in November of 2020, two new in-person gathering opportunities at the church increased the church’s membership even more.
Alcoholic Anonymous members resumed meeting at the church in the summer of 2020 and starting in July 2020, the church’s laity began intentionally developing deeper relationships with these members.
The connections being made helped prompt a new Tuesday evening service at Harris Hill called “The Path Gathering.” Each week, starting at 6:30 p.m., the Tuesday evening service begins with video music, word of prayer, and every week a person shares a testimony of how they see Jesus working in their life; then someone shares a scripture; they have communion together, then the person who shares scripture can ask open-ended questions for discussion.
Each Tuesday night, the church has welcomed anywhere between 16 and 35 people to this service.
The testimonies shared are touching. Katie said, “The people are very open and vulnerable…it’s a way to offer the hope of Jesus Christ in a brand-new way…You bring your doubts and questions in a casual environment.”
For example, Vicki, a vibrant, middle-aged woman said. “God has definitely transformed my life” as she stepped up to share her testimony of what she called “woundedness and purpose” with the guests of the Aug. 3, 2021 service.
Vicki shared, “I was sexually abused as a child and that really messed me up. I decided to get married at a young age to get me out of my house that was not good. I jumped from the frying pan into the fire and married a man that was very abusive when I was 15. By the age of 19, I had two children and found myself getting divorced because the man I married was very physically abusive.”
She explained that she went to church as a child, and “the God they gave me was standing over my head with a hatchet.” She felt she could never measure up; the pastor would call her out in front of the congregation and say that if she didn’t straighten up, God would kill her.
Vicki added, “At 23, I left God for good; I said, ‘If you are going to kill me, do it.’ I lived in a very dark place for 18 years.”
She said, “I spent 23 years in and out of mental institutions; I was diagnosed with everything you can imagine…I was on medications for everything—eight different medications. And nothing helped me.”
In her last of several suicide attempts, she felt the Holy Spirit speak to her telling her to get herself to a hospital; she died and had to be resuscitated. She woke up in the ICU and felt a deep desire to connect with the Lord. I called out to him and he delivered me from all my fears.”
She said, “I was so wounded for so many years, but I have since learned that God is a God of love.”
Vicki cited Jeremiah chapter 18; she explained that God is the potter, and she is the clay.
She then played an acoustic guitar and sang beautifully about how she is a vessel and how God has created everyone to be a vessel.
The relationship Vicki ended up developing with God is inspiring; you can hear her whole, powerful testimony here.
In addition to the Tuesday evening service, Harris Hill also offers a Thursday morning gathering that starts with meditation and prayer, Lectio Divina…and then diving into scripture.”
Harris Hill also offers a Saturday morning bible study, at a local restaurant, owned by a member of the congregation.
Katie said, “Who starts all of this in the middle of a pandemic?
Katie uses the phrase, “But God…” all the time to explain how all of this has been possible.
Pandemic and all, Harris Hill UMC showcases how they live out Upper New York’s vision to “be God’s love to our neighbors in all places.”