A leap of faith
By Águeda Sanfiz

Stephanie Moon updates the board in front of the North Middletown Christian Church, adding the sentence "190 years strong" to commemorate the church's anniversary. She has served as the minister since 2015, bringing her uplifting and caring style to a shrinking and aging community.

Stephanie Moon leaves her car unlocked as she arrives at the North Middletown Christian Church, where she has served as the minister since 2015. That way, the church members can drop an array of things for her in the car. Sometimes, it is the newspaper; other times, a dozen eggs. A native of Atlanta, she would not leave her car unlocked at home, but she got used to it here. It's a way to accept her community's wish to look after her.

But caring goes both ways, and Stephanie is always ready to go the extra mile for her congregants. In its 190 years, membership in the North Middletown Christian Church has decreased dramatically, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, when the sum of weekly churchgoers dropped to 35. Therefore, all the congregants are precious, and Stephanie ensures they are listened to and cared for.

“The church is my family; they are my tribe,' Reeca Dawes says. "I can count on them more than I can count on my own family.” She has served as the secretary of the church since 2003.
Reeca and Stephanie visit one of the oldest members of the church at her home regularly. Betty Allman, 93, also known as "Sweet Betty," is an institution in the church, not only because she has been a congregant since she was four years old but also because of her loving disposition and passion for chocolate. Unfortunately, her chances of attending worship in person again are low due to her health.

Most of the church's usual congregants are 80 to 96 years old. Some can only attend Sunday's worship virtually, and not all have the technology for it. That makes the regular visits to their homes an essential part of Stephanie's responsibility. She runs errands for them, gives them communion and chats with them.

The church is an emblem of North Middletown, a "historic sanctuary, but with a progressive message of love, compassion, and hospitality," the website states. However, its future is concerning, especially since this town of only 600 citizens is shrinking again.

Stephanie is aware of the challenges ahead of her, and she is willing to try new approaches to connect with more people in the community. In 2016, she established the virtual worship broadcast to connect with those with reduced mobility and out-of-town residents. Five years later, she launched the Summer Gleaning Project to serve fresh produce for free to 53 individuals in the community per season. Her optimistic and uplifting energy manifests not only in her Sunday sermons but also in the innovative activities she programs during Sunday School.
Stephanie was the first female minister of the church, and she is determined not to be the last. The outcomes of Stephanie's efforts are still uncertain, but for now, the board in front of the North Middletown Christian Church reads: "190 years strong."

Stephanie talks over the phone as she stands in front of the portraits of previous pastors. Her husband, Steven Osborne, admires how his wife serves as the first female minister. “Being a woman in this role presents many obstacles, and she handles them in a way that does not alienate the male congregants,” says Steve.

Stephanie visits church member Charlie Heaberlin at his home after he returned to town from attending his sister's funeral in Minnesota. She thanks Charlie for the plant she receives from him as she leaves the house. Charlie is one of the most regular members of the church.

Stephanie knocks on the door of Charlie Heaberlin's home. Charlie is busy renovating the kitchen, and it takes him some time to answer. Stephanie knows Charlie is at home because she called him two days ago and arranged the visit. Stephanie calls to check on her congregants as well, especially when she can't visit them.

Stephanie visits Gladys Oldson in the Bourbon Heights senior living community in Paris. They take communion and pray together. Gladys moved to this facility shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic, and she no longer attends Sunday worship at church. Stephanie runs errands for Gladys. During this visit, the minister brings a manual of instructions to help Gladys use a brand-new microwave that was recently installed at her home.

Stephanie carries some of the articles she needs for Sunday worship to another room. Every fifth Sunday, the community celebrates Food, Faith, and Fellowship, an event that Stephanie first introduced in the church to worship and have a meal with all the congregants.

Stephanie stretches after moving some boxes. Since the staff is minimal at the church, she needs to do an array of tasks on her own.

Stephanie lifts several copies of "The Hymnal for Worship and Celebrations" in preparation for Sunday. Music plays an integral part of Stephanie's life. She is a member of the Lexington Singers and rehearses with the choir every Monday. Her joyful personality and talent manifest when she sings spontaneously throughout the day as she performs small tasks.

Betty Allman, 93, speaks with Stephanie upon returning home from the hospital. Allman misses attending the Sunday service in person. "She tells it as it is," says Betty when asked about Stephanie's sermons. Recca Dawes, the church secretary, brought a large tablet to Betty's home, hoping she could still watch the sermons from home.

Stephanie rests briefly at home while responding to emails and listening to calming music on her TV. Finding time to rest, reflect, and guide people spiritually is important to her. "Jesus did not die for us to go to heaven; he died to bring heaven to us," says Stephanie.