Becoming a Sailboat Church

Rev. Ann Kelly, Leland Presbyterian Church

“Rowboat or Sailboat?” asks the title of Chapter 3 in Joan Gray’s Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers. After studying that chapter. the Session of Leland Presbyterian Church in Leland Mississippi agreed that we are a rowboat church. What’s more, we are extremely comfortable rowing.  We know the resources that we have in terms of money, volunteers, and skill. We know the demographics of our community and we engage in ministries that make use of those gifts. Being a rowboat church, according to Gray, “means that we are in control; we are getting the job done.” When we get to the point where we run out of resources or can’t row anymore, we’ll have to reevaluate what we can do. 

The boat that has been used as a symbol of the church since ancient times is not a rowboat, however, it’s a sailboat. The sailboat symbolizes a church powered by the Holy Spirit, as the wind moves it in the direction God would have it go. It’s riskier than knowing where you are going and how you are going to get there and it doesn’t sound nearly as practical. Sailboat churches believe that the God who calls will provide the resources, so they can courageously set sail on a continuing adventure with God leading them to do things they never dreamed they could do.

Less than two weeks after our discussion of rowboat and sailboat churches, the wind started stirring…literally. Around 8:00 pm on the evening of March 24, 2023, a large, destructive tornado hit the neighboring communities of Rolling Fork and Silver City, Mississippi. With windspeeds up to 195 mph, the tornado wiped out much of Rolling Fork, killed 17 people and left 165 injured. Several members of LPC were among the First Responders, who showed up by 9:00 pm to help locate people, get them to shelter and medical help. Early that morning a plea for volunteers to help serve meals provided by the Leland Lion’s Club was made to our Session and other members of the church. Responses were swift. Saturday afternoon our members assisted other community volunteers in gathering bedding, cots, donations of water, food and supplies and setting up a shelter for fifty people in the Leland armory. Though tornado victims were housed with family and friends or in local hotels, first responders from all over the country used the Leland shelter as home base in the early stages of recovery. 

Knowing that the armory was only a temporary solution for housing volunteers for a disaster that would require years of recovery, Leland Presbyterian began conversation with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance about how we might take existing classrooms and turn them into a host site for volunteers. We had plenty of unused space, 15 cots donated by a church from a neighboring presbytery, but no showers. Our biggest resource was the desire to help. We just weren’t sure how to make it work. PDA connected us to the Presbytery of Charlotte who agreed to rent us a shower trailer for three years at no cost to the church. Simple metal frame beds, mattresses, bedding and other supplies were provided through grants received from PDA both in St. Andrew and Mississippi presbyteries, donations from St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, and other grants and donations from local business and foundations and churches. At the same time, donations of supplies for Rolling Fork and Silver City kept pouring in from Mississippi Presbytery and elsewhere.

LPC welcomed our first group of volunteers from Maple Plain Presbyterian Church in Minnesota. They arrived just as the snow from an unusual arctic blast was melting. The shower trailer had frozen but church members had showers to share. The congregation enjoyed hosting the group for dinner and learning more about their church as well as the work they were doing in Rolling Fork. The second group arrived in February, fourteen people from two different presbyteries in Iowa. They had a wealth of experience in mission and lots to share about their different churches and their ministries. One of the churches represented in that group was in Mason City, Iowa. Their volunteers thought it would be nice if our volunteers had cubbies to hold their stuff next to their beds and sent us a design, offering to build them, paint them and deliver them to us in early May. If there was ever any doubt that we are a connectional church, that doubt has fled! Good things are happening here and they are definitely not in our control.

 What began as a suggestion that we set up a few cots in our empty space has quickly grown into a bigger vision for helping the residents of the Mississippi Delta through this disaster and beyond. While we were preparing existing space to house volunteers, we began conversations with a local contractor about a 1500 ft. expansion to our education building to provide a kitchen, dining space, laundry room and permanent showers for volunteers. Aside from the laundry facilities and permanent showers, this will allow our volunteers the convenience and safety of sleeping, preparing food, eating meals and showering in the same building. We are certain there will be other disasters and we want to be ready. More than that, we realize that the Mississippi Delta is fertile ground for mission opportunities for churches, college groups and others. Our addition will cost about $150,000 to $200,000 to have the structure built and we hope that with the help of volunteers we can finish it ourselves. The money for that addition isn’t here yet, but the hope and the vision are still there. If God wants us to move forward, God will help make it happen. We’re sure of that! In the meantime, we’ve named our host site Windward to remind us that the Spirit of God can work among us to do more than we can ever imagine.