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Church marks final Easter [Omaha World-Herald, Neb.]
[April 12, 2009]

Church marks final Easter [Omaha World-Herald, Neb.]

(Omaha World-Herald (NE) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Apr. 12--OHIOWA, Neb. -- This is their last big holiday together in their little white church, but the people of Ohiowa United Methodist will gladly add their voices to the joyful noise of Christians celebrating Easter around the world today.

Eight-year-old Glenn Meyer, the last Sunday school student, will pull a rope to ring the church bell, as he first did when he was so little that the rope pulled him off the ground, leaving his squealing to mingle with the bell's pealing.

Ten or 15 people in curved pews will turn to No. 322 in the Methodist Hymnal, "Up From the Grave He Arose." At the piano, Jodi Meyer will play the rousing holiday hymn, as she has done for the 21 years since her husband, Verryl Meyer, informed her on their honeymoon that she was the new church organist and pianist.

"Up from the grave He arose . . ." Verlin Most, 83, who married into Ohiowa United Methodist a half-century ago, will join the chorus in the pew where he and his wife, Evelyn, sat for years beside the wheelchair bearing her mother. Later, when Evelyn was in a wheelchair with Parkinson's disease, Verlin sat in the same pew beside her. Now the women are both gone, but he's still there in the pew they shared.

". . . with a mighty triumph o'er his foes . . ." Even "the boys" -- Verryl Meyer, a farmer of few words, and his brother, Claine -- are likely to sing out loudly on this hymn, the only tune that really got them going in Sunday school decades ago.

" . . . Hallelujah, Christ arose! . . ." The congregation will all join in -- including church matriarch Dorothy Meyer, a third-generation member since 1939 and the Sunday school teacher for at least 50 years; and the Rev. Lorri Kentner, pastor of the Methodist churches in Ohiowa, Davenport and Bruning, Neb.

If these walls could talk, they would sing and laugh as well as cry. Ohiowa United Methodist Church will close in June after 125 years of praise and fellowship in this village of 140 people about 40 miles south of York, Neb.

As with the several Nebraska and Iowa churches that close each year, membership in the Ohiowa church has dwindled, largely because of populations shifting to urban areas. And they're having a hard time paying the bills.

In Ohiowa, the Easter theme -- like today's Easter hymns -- resonates in the unusual approach that the Methodist congregation is taking to its impending demise.

Members made a "bucket list," a roster of things they wanted to do as a congregation before their church kicked the bucket.

They'll hold a Sunday service at the Fairview Manor in nearby Fairmont. That way, they can worship together once more with a longtime member, Carol Schoenholz, who lives in the nursing home.

They'll have a contemporary service, maybe even with guitar music. They'll have one more confirmation ceremony. And they'll celebrate the church's 125th anniversary, though on the same day they officially deconsecrate their church.

As bucket lists go, this one is not long or exotic. But it represents what member Kim Dunker described as "the heart of the church." As Christians celebrate the resurrection, Ohiowa United Methodist members are looking for a positive way to approach life after the death of their church.

There is sadness there, but a deeper joy born of the belief that life goes on, and an attitude of looking for reasons to be happy.

During a two-hour interview at the church last week, members and their pastor laughed a lot. They cried only a little -- when they discussed how they don't know what will happen to the building, and how they're not emotionally ready to decide what to do with any resources that remain. That's too final.

They had lots of good memories to share -- something they've been doing a lot lately.

There was the time that Dunker's late father, Dee, used farm terminology to ask Jodi Meyer if she was expecting a child. She was, but hadn't told anybody. After that wisecrack, Dee Dunker had to duck a wadded-up church bulletin.

When Most's wife was in a wheelchair, children in the church used to race after Sunday morning services to be the ones to operate the wheelchair lift on the Mosts' car.

Some funny, and awful, sounds have come from the organ after Glenn Meyer played tricks on his mom by changing keys between services.

And when the pews are auctioned off, bids may come from people whose names are already on the merchandise -- scratched into the wood during Bible lessons long ago.

Ohiowa United Methodist has 19 registered members, and only a couple of children too young to be registered yet. Prospects for growth aren't good. Several months ago, after three members died and two transferred to another church, the congregation voted to close.

They had talked about it for a few years. They were loath to do it.

Verlin Most said his wife, on the morning several years ago that she realized she was starting to slip into disability because of Parkinson's, looked him square in the face at breakfast and said, "Don't let the church close." But now, he and other members said, it has to happen. It's time to let go of the church that generations have lovingly maintained since its founding in 1884. That was three years before the village of Ohiowa was incorporated and named by settlers from Ohio and Iowa.

Kentner proposed the bucket list. She said it was part of deciding to die with dignity, to face the end with "a resurrection people's" conviction that life continues.

By staying open until June, the Ohiowa congregation can keep its annual financial obligations to the four Methodist churches to which it's connected. (Five area churches support two pastors.) It also can celebrate its 125th anniversary with a church service and a picnic. Members are hoping that lots of former pastors and parishioners will come.

That same day, June 7, they'll have a deconsecration service, officially declaring the church to be no longer a holy place, Kentner said.

It hurts to think of having to do that, although it helps to believe there's something more.

Church members don't know where they'll go next. Maybe one of two Lutheran churches in and around Ohiowa. Maybe the Bruning or Davenport United Methodist Church. Whichever they choose, Kentner said, they'll take the spirit that has made Ohiowa United Methodist a special place.

"They won't exist again as the same group of people, as the Ohiowa United Methodist Church," she said. "But the church will go on in a different shape. We don't know what that is, but we know it will live on." --Contact the writer: 444-1057, [email protected]

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