Church embraces “Masks for Neighbors” mission

Like many other congregations, Central Presbyterian Church in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, found itself having to reimagine mission as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic threw obstacles into the various ways they had always done it before. No more mission trips, no more on-site local home repair, no more after-school program with the neighborhood elementary school. Even the active knitting and quilting ministries were sidelined as hospitals and care facilities stopped receiving things from “the outside.”

But during a meeting in May, a new possibility using existing gifts was born: “Masks for Neighbors” — the creating and offering of masks to anyone who needed them in the community. A way to help everyone “love their neighbors” better.

Assembling the “Masks for Neighbors” station in June

The idea was hardly hatched before Emma Aucker, a 16-year-old member of Central’s youth group, felt called to tend it. Emma approached Jenny Warren, Central’s transitional pastoral associate, about taking on “Masks for Neighbors” as her graduation project (a requirement of all students in the district). Jenny agreed to mentor Emma, and there’s been no stopping her since!

On June 4, using volleyball stanchions and garden netting, the “Masks for Neighbors” station was set up in the church parking lot, which faces a busy road. Emma had created waterproof signage, and taken words of blessing for the mask wearers and words of welcome to Central’s online worship and inserted them, with the newly made masks, into biodegradable plastic bags.  As our group busily clipped the 126 mask bags onto the netting with clothespins, cars were already pulling into the lot. It took some convincing to assure people that the masks were free — and that it was Central’s way of loving our neighbors. One mother, so grateful to have masks for her daughters in the back seat, insisted on at least giving us french fries still warm from their drive-thru purchase!

By the next day, there were only 10 masks left. Masks for Neighbors was up and running — but running so fast that we were running out of masks!

Throughout the summer months, Central members continued to sew masks, donate fabric and elastic, and help with cutting the pieces for others to sew. One member faithfully emails the mask inventory each morning and evening on her commute to and from work. Emma continues to stuff the blessings and masks and hang the mask bags faithfully. She writes updates, with words of gratitude and encouragement to the Central church family in our weekly WE@Central email. And she tracks the mask count.

Which is where we encounter our biggest problem. We struggle to keep supply up with demand!  None of us were prepared for the reality of the scope of the need we were meeting — of just how many neighbors we were loving by offering these masks.

On July 16, sewers and other supporters gathered at the mask station to celebrate the hanging of mask #1,000 — complete with a hymn for the occasion!

The community newspaper joined us and interviewed Emma about the Masks for Neighbors project. Between that and Facebook publicity, the larger community became engaged and wanted to help. The local fire station had a donation of masks, and they sent them over for Central’s Masks for Neighbors station. Individuals contacted Emma, asking if they could contribute masks they were making, or donate fabric and supplies. Soon, Masks for Neighbors wasn’t just being done for the Downingtown community, but with it. Loving our neighbors was going viral!

Hymn written for the #1,000 mask celebration (click to enlarge)

By mid-August, we had given away well over 1,700 masks! With the start of a school year, we are supplying more child-sized masks. And masks aren’t the only thing found on the mask station. It has become a mailbox, of sorts, as grateful people leave notes of thanks, clipped to the net, written on any piece of paper they could find in their cars.  But even better is the spirit of mutual engagement now that Central members and others in the community are finding this to be a way to love our neighbors together.

Central Presbyterian Church has been known as “the round church,” since it was built in the 1970s. Thanks to a Mission Committee willing to re-imagine mission, to a 16-year-old’s sense of call and determination, to church folks who have not flagged in zeal for sewing these masks, to others eager to supply and support them and to the Downingtown community who has rallied and joined us, Central may just get another well-deserved reputation as “the mask church”!

Emma Aucker, left, and Jenny Warren, right. To celebrate reaching 1500 masks,
Jenny gave Emma a “Love Your Neighbor” mask!

JENNY WARREN has served 11 congregations over her 34 years of ordained ministry. While it doesn’t speak much for her ability to hold a job, it has given her a breadth of congregational and transitional experience.  She currently serves as a transitional pastoral associate with Central Presbyterian Church in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Editor’s note: As of September 1, the church has shared 1,800 masks with the community.