Community Care Packages - How St. Thomas Episcopal Church stays connected in unique times.
Being the only Episcopal church for miles doesn't stop St. Thomas from making an impact.
"You're likely not born an Episcopalian in Yancey County!" joked the Rev. Beth Turner, rector of the Burnsville-based parish. Located in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, St. Thomas Episcopal has less than 100 members.
"We're definitely a minority religion-wise here, but so many people in my parish move in and out of many different layers of our small community, so we're all friends and we all share resources," Turner said. "So that's what St. Thomas tries to do, how we stay connected."
From the outside, Yancey County might look like a typical Appalachian region. Located in the Mountain Deanery of the Diocese of Western North Carolina, Yancey County is home to only 17,000 residents, and only 1,800 in the town proper of Burnsville. However, hidden among the rolling hills and country roads is a thriving creative community.
"It's very rural, but it's also a really creative community," Turner said. "We have people who have been here a long time, traditional Appalachian culture. Then we also have the Penland School of Craft right on the border, it's an international school for craft, so people from all around the world come to learn pottery, weaving, metalworking, all kinds of things! Celo is also nearby, they're an intentional community all about homesteading, green burials, and really just sharing everything."
The creative, communal attitude is also present at St. Thomas'. Though small, the parish is actively involved in many outreach ministries in the community through their outreach initiative, "The Abbey." With a mission to "partner with our neighbors in sharing resources to connect people and enhance our community," The Abbey at St. Thomas is actively involved in ten different community programs throughout Yancey County.
"We're all about mutuality," Turner said. "We partner with our neighbors to share resources to enhance our community. We want to be humble and know that there are people besides those in our tribe that have resources for healing and salvation, just like we have for them. We don't have the resources for everything, so if there's any way in a partnership that we can maximize and expand that's what we want to do."
Though the impact of COVID-19 was difficult for many parishes small and large, Turner was determined to continue a sense of community involvement and connection even if the congregation had to be physically apart. Thus, she thought of the idea of a weekly 'Care Package,' or "pastoral care all packaged up" as Turner described it. Though there "aren't any cookies" inside, the weekly Care Packages are sent to the members of the St. Thomas congregation to help keep community alive.
"It's very personal, I want people to know I'm really thinking of them," Turner said. "I spent a lot of time curating things to put in the care package. There's always a prayer that I put at the top, and usually a little note from me, a "love note" of sorts, think of it as a not-cheesy Hallmark card! I also, based on the scripture, collect a song or a poem or sometimes I'll find a poem and give it to my musician friends and they'll do an interpretation with music. I have a section for children, a Godly Play section for the week, and I also invite people to send photos of what their kids did that week so the larger community can see the children."
For the members of St. Thomas, the Car Packages act as a liturgy during these unique times of separation. Even as they worship from a distance during these unique times, Turner wants her parish community to know that they are loved and united.
"It is in our neurobiology that it is connecting and healing for us to see each others eyes and face, it makes us feel safe," Turner said. "It is part of us feeling calm and being able to think clearly. We want to help provide that, even from a distance."
St. Thomas is located in Burnsville, NC. To learn more, click here to visit their website.