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One of South Texas’ oldest churches was fading on the vine, until its parishioners answered a call to serve the needy
AMANDA BROWN SNOWDEN
There is a lot going on at the little church beside Veterans Park in downtown Cotulla, where the congregation has been re-energized in a mission of community outreach.
The drive has attracted the support of local government and civic organizations, and its publicity has spread to the most needy of families in the county.
A mission of love and support to all has grown from a need by the church to expand its reach into the community, and a congregation that was dwindling in numbers over the past decade has found new purpose and new friends.
From 2011 to 2018, the First United Methodist Church in Cotulla welcomed a series of new pastors, some staying only a short time before moving to other communities. Despite its lengthy and storied history of being the first church in Cotulla, organized in 1881, as well as extensive renovation work to the church completed in recent years, the congregation continued to dwindle to ever smaller numbers.
In 2018, a young man accepted his first-ever pastor position and moved his family to Cotulla, ready to put in the work to gain the respect of a well-established assembly.
Pastor Jesse Franklin expected an uphill battle, but he did not expect to start by rebuilding the church’s membership and mission from the ground up.
Within the first two years of arriving, Pastor Jesse and his wife Amy were helped by their few remaining dedicated parishioners in expanding the church membership, re-establishing the Wesley Nurse program, and breathing life into many church functions that had become stagnant.
When they were well on the way to an exciting time of new growth and revitalization for the church, the unimaginable happened. The coronavirus pandemic froze all church activities, assemblies, services, outreach and mission work in their tracks. Pastor Jesse and his small flock, however, were undaunted.
Fellowship in the time of a worldwide pandemic presented a new special set of complications, with an even more special set of creative solutions. At the First United Methodist Church, Pastor Jesse has been navigating limitations and mandates while still trying to revive a church that had been almost forgotten.
Jesse, with more help from wife Amy, dove headfirst into learning about technology and ways to keep in touch with the whole community, despite being unable to meet in person. As a result, the church now has a much larger internet presence than ever before, helping to propel it quickly into upgraded communications, and therefore reach a wider audience.
The most important work the church does is outreach and assistance to those in need among the people it serves. The community of Cotulla is certainly not immune to need. At present, the church has focused its attention on helping Cotulla residents, but the church hopes to begin expansion out to Encinal residents and neighboring communities in South Texas, who are often overlooked.
Amada’s Pantry was opened in 2019 as a resource to combat hunger, but also personal care needs; as a group, the pantry volunteers have delivered over 200 boxes full of non-perishable food items into the community. As a part of the program, they also use donations of toiletries, clothes, and diapers to support those in need.
Amada’s Pantry has partnered with the San Antonio Food Bank to help with accepting and distributing food to those in need. The group works diligently on expanding the program and, by the end of 2021, expects to include a specific Senior Food Program to benefit those seniors most in need.
The last Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway was a similarly successful aid to the community, providing 444 people with food for the holiday.
The church also has a twice-monthly prepared meal service. Once a month, meals are delivered to elderly community members who are commonly shut-in, and later in the month a hot meal is prepared and delivered to the elderly, but is also made available as a drive-through pick-up option for the entire community.
Amada’s Pantry and the Methodist Café ministries have enabled the First United Methodist Church in Cotulla to feed over 1,875 people, and the parishioners and volunteers engaged in the effort take pride in that accomplishment.
The pantry itself has required and received a makeover to accommodate its growth in popularity and service. New shelves, refrigerators and freezers are being added to help house much needed items.
Just ahead of the 2021-2022 school year, the church also hosted its annual Backpack and School Supply Giveaway, at which volunteers distributed 300 backpacks filled with school supplies to local schoolchildren. Additional manpower in the effort was provided by the Cotulla/La Salle County Chamber of Commerce and La Salle County Fire Rescue & EMS.
In addition to specific outreach and community service programs, the church is also often host to Garden Club and Woman’s Club activities, as well as host of the Los Marginados Car Club, whose members were able to receive two donated cars to be restored to good working condition, and then orchestrated a giveaway to two community members in desperate need of transportation.
Unwilling to stop there, the First United Methodist Church in Cotulla is also dedicated to weekly general Bible study, women’s centered Bible study, and ‘Prayer Warriors’ meetings.
Pastor Jesse looks back on the challenges and successes he has witnessed and helped orchestrate, and is pleased that his parishioners answered the call.
Of course, anyone would prefer a job position that adds very little burden to their lives. Even a man employed by a church would love to find an easy spot to fill.
Luckily for this historic gathering place, Pastor Jesse did not shy from a difficult task. There is much work to do, he admits, but he often refers back to the basics to appeal to his community.
Much as the Bible reads in Matthew 22:39, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” Pastor Jesse encourages anyone and everyone to join the church family.
“Come as you are and be loved,” he says. “That’s it. No pressure or expectations. Just come as you are, and be loved.”