Methodists were out in force Thursday afternoon in Billings, boxing food, pulling weeds, building a house and lending a hand to more than a dozen nonprofits.
Two hundred members of the Yellowstone Conference of the United Methodist Church fanned out around town for three hours. The volunteering effort took place on the first of three days of the denomination’s Annual Conference Session.
Clergy and lay people are gathering at the Double Tree Inn “to be together in worship, fellowship, learn together, serve together and do the business of the conference,” said Bishop Karen Oliveto, who heads the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain conferences under the auspices of Mountain Sky Area.
Oliveto stopped by several of the volunteer sites Thursday, including the Billings Food Bank. She walked into the cavernous storage area, where volunteers in orange T-shirts stood at an assembly line filling cardboard boxes with cans of green beans, mixed fruit, tomato sauce and bags of rice.
Oliveto shared hugs and conversation with the 16 people who chose to volunteer at the food bank. This is the first year conference volunteers have helped out during the annual gathering.
Organizers, including Oliveto, made a commitment to send everybody out for an afternoon of service.
“I just think when Christians gather, when United Methodists gather, the world should change,” she said. “We should be making a visible impact in the world with the love of Christ, and that there are people who are going to have food this month because of our labors says so much about how we understand Christ working in the world.”
The Yellowstone Conference includes about 117 congregations in Montana, Wyoming and a sliver of Idaho. At least one pastor and one lay person represents each of the churches at the gathering.
Dawn Skerritt, pastor of Columbia Falls United Methodist Church, said the Billings Food Bank was a natural fit for her, since she also volunteers at the food bank in Columbia Falls.
Her husband’s aunt and uncle served on the board of the Billings Food Bank, “so I have a special heart for it.”
“I volunteered here when I was in college at MSU Billings,” Skerritt said. “So it’s a chance to come back and see what improvements have been made and to help get a pulse of the need in the community.
Avis Winslow, a lay person representing Kootenai River Parish in Troy, stood at the assembly line, helping to close the filled boxes so they could be stacked on a pallet.
Winslow felt drawn to the food bank. She smiled, saying the volunteers were “doing the Lord’s work.”
“I just think it’s a very important element in people’s lives that are on very limited income,” she said. “I’ve been there, I know what it’s like.”
Peyton Baker, 16, a member of the youth group at Christ United Methodist Church in Great Falls, took a minute from stuffing the boxes to talk about her first time at the annual conference meeting.
“It’s really great for building leadership skills, and for getting our say,” Peyton said. “Often the younger generation is overlooked, so to be part of these meetings, we’ve got our voices in there and are working to keep the church alive.”
Over at the Whitetail Run Community Garden, run by the Housing Authority of Billings, another 13 people added mulch to the dirt and pulled weeds under the beating sun and 95-degree temperatures.
The Rev. Deb Olenyk, pastor of the Riverton United Methodist Church, in Riverton, Wyoming, offered to spring for ice cream after they were done. One of the other volunteers joked that since it was a conference event, “we ought to put this to a vote.”
Olenyk, who was weeding an herb garden, said that the time Thursday afternoon, as well as the other two and a half days, provide a time to meet with colleagues in ministry and to be inspired by them. It’s also an opportunity to meet with younger clergy, and with laity, “to see a bigger picture of the church.”
Jennifer McDonald, a seminary student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, is from Cody, Wyoming, and will come back to the Yellowstone Conference when she graduates. On Thursday she weeded a strawberry patch.
Part of McDonald's call to ministry came during a discovery process in Olenyk’s church. As a future pastor, she said, it’s important to build and maintain relationships with people in the conference.
“It’s nice to come back and be with everybody,” McDonald said. “And to get my hands in the dirt. I like to be outside and feel the connection to God’s creation. And this is food that people are going to eat, and that feels really good.”