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Open Heart UMC’s radical Lenten journey

You won’t find any Easter egg hunts this year at Open Heart UMC in South Rapid City, a church located in the heart of the old Robbinsdale neighborhood, between three low-income schools. But you will find relationship building, an emphasis on serving and loving their neighbors, free haircuts, and more.

Jackson and James, both four years of age, smile during the Ash Wednesday Love Thy Neighbor Event at Open Heart UMC. Photos courtesy of Open Heart UMC.

Open Heart, formerly South Maple UMC, launched a “Love Thy Neighbor” event on Ash Wednesday. Partnering with Feeding South Dakota, the congregation served over 200 people with a hot meal, coffee, access to a free clothing closet, diapers, and grocery shopping in Feeding South Dakota’s mobile food pantry. People also received a blessing with ashes, prayers from the pastor, and an invitation to serve in the church alongside others.

“The idea is to catch families and youth when school gets out,” says Pastor Holly Sortland, who serves Rapid City Open Heart. “We have done feeding events on Saturdays, but we find we get more people to come on a school day, when they are already in the area to pick up their children. What is especially great is that kids and youth can also shop in the food pantry without an adult. No one is turned away.”

Mary Corbine (far left), Director of Food Distribution, poses with other Feeding South Dakota staff next to their new mobile Food Pantry, which can be found in the Open Heart UMC parking lot every first Wednesday afternoon of the month.

Sortland, whose eyes have been opened to the poverty and hunger issues in South Rapid City since her appointment to Open Heart in 2017, has been encouraging the church members to get out of their comfort zones during the season of Lent and to form relationships with people they normally overlook. “We are really emphasizing to people that Jesus spent most of his time loving and serving people on the margins, and as Jesus followers, we are called to do the same,” Sortland said.

The church is also planning a “Week of Caring” during Holy Week. The congregation will partner with local hair stylists to offer free haircuts to families and children in need. They have also enlisted a professional photographer to take free portraits for families otherwise unable to afford them.

“Our goal for this event is to get to know our neighbors, hear their stories, validate their struggles, and make it clear that we offer a place of radical love and hospitality,” says Katie Frooman, a member and the chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee at Open Heart. 

“When stories are shared, it’s amazing how people come together to help,” says Sortland.

Sindy Dawiec, left, will be traveling to Florida thanks to hundreds of people who gave to a GoFundMe account created in her name, takes a selfie with Pastor Holly at a recent Wednesday food give-away event.

In the month of March, Sortland and other congregants started a Go-Fund-Me account for Sindy Dawiec, a parishioner and beloved member of the community who works at the local McDonald’s. Dawiec has stage four ovarian cancer and wanted to make one last trip to Florida to see her family and grandchildren before she became too ill to travel. The campaign, entitled “Sindy’s Last Wish” had an initial goal of $1800, and quickly went viral. The campaign has over 800 shares on Facebook, and even got the attention of the McDonald’s Corporation on Twitter.  To date, over $4,500 has been raised for Dawiec. Sindy will be traveling to Florida over the Easter holiday.

“It’s a miracle how everything came together. I just can’t believe it,” says Dawiec, who will get to meet one of her great-grand-daughters for the first time during her trip.

Last month, Open Heart also shared the story of 10-year-old Matthew Richards, who suffers from congenital pulmonary hypertension. He is in need of a lung and heart transplant. Matthew, who lives with his grandmother, needed to quickly relocate to Sioux Falls, at the advisement of his doctors, to be at a lower elevation and to be closer to the transplant center in Omaha. After seeing Matthew’s story on Facebook, Pastor Derek Baum rallied the congregants of Aberdeen First UMC and sent a $1,000 check to help with moving expenses for Matthew and his grandma.

Ten-year-old Matthew Richards poses by his cake after the Open Heart UMC congregation surprised him with a farewell party before relocating to Sioux Falls with his grandmother.

“I was floored when I opened the envelope and saw that generous gift; it brought me to tears,” said Sortland, who baptized Matthew over two years ago and has watched his health decline. “It’s amazing what we can achieve when we pool our resources and generous hearts together.”

On Good Friday, the Open Heart Wednesday youth group is joining forces with Feeding South Dakota and leading a Good Friday CROP Hunger Walk prior to the evening service. “Just as Jesus suffered humiliation during his final walk to the cross, we want to bring attention to the hundreds of people in our local community who suffer the humiliation of hunger everyday,” says Sortland.  Anyone in the Rapid City area is invited to join in the walk, and can register or donate to walkers by clicking here.

“We’re proud to be making a visible difference in our community; we are truly starting to see the fruits of building God’s kingdom, one story, one person at a time,” says Pastor Sortland.

To learn more about Open Heart’s ministries and vision, visit their website at www.openheartumc.org