BUCKHANNON – “Neighbor” is a term any discerning listener will hear the Rev. Alicia Randolph Rapking drop often.
And she’s usually not talking about people who live nearby, in the vicinity of the Upshur Parish House at the corner of College Avenue and Sedgwick Street.
She’s talking about its meaning as one’s fellow human being.
Rapking, an ordained United Methodist minister, recently announced she would be resigning from her post as director of the Upshur Parish House and Crosslines and moving to Parkersburg this summer due to receiving a new appointment by the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
She will be the pastor at First United Methodist Church on Juliana Street in Parkersburg, and moving day is June 24.
A bridge between the people and the pew
The relocation coincides with a shift in how Rapking has come to see herself, her role in the church and in the world.
“I’ve started to look at myself as a bridge between drawing the community of faith deeper into the needs of the community around them, to learn to listen and to walk alongside of people,” she reflected Thursday.
So, how does one function as a bridge between the United Methodist Church and people who may not attend church, may not believe in God or a Higher Power or both?
“Find out people’s names and pray for those people by name, and how do you do that?” Rapking says. “You can only do that by coming in and having coffee with the neighbors and talking to them and listening to them. You ask, ‘What is your name? How’s your family doing?’
“Just being simple, good neighbors, but that requires people coming in [the Parish House] to do that, and so, I’ve been telling all the groups that I’ve talked to this spring, that one of the best things that we can do to help folks who are in crisis is to just come and sit with them and have coffee with them.”
Rapking is certainly grateful for people who give money and other resources to the Upshur Cooperative Parish; that’s vital, and the nonprofit organization couldn’t function without those things.
“I think giving money is certainly important,” Rapking reflected, “but I think if we’re going to make any significant changes in our country, in our society, it’s going to be when people hear the stories of their neighbors and become the voice for those who don’t have the courage to speak or are so busy trying to survive, they don’t have the time to speak.”
In essence, real change, Rapking says, is not only going to take time, but it’s going to require people willing to give of their actual time to their fellow human beings.
Rapking she uses the term “neighbor” intentionally, with Jesus’s teachings in mind.
“It refers to Jesus, who told us that everyone is our neighbor,” she explains. “When we see everyone as our neighbor, then we realize that we are all in this life together and helping and loving our neighbors becomes second nature.”
‘I have something to say to the Church’
Which brings us back to the metaphor of a bridge.
Rapking says she’s spent nine years as the director of both the Parish House and Crosslines, the ecumenical ministry which operates out of the Parish House.
“In that time, the need – the services that we offer through Crosslines and the Parish House – has tripled,” she said, “and this has been the best appointment of my career. I’ve loved being here every minute.”
“But, I am very aware that I’m being called back to serve the church full time,” she adds, “and part of that came out of my renewal leave last year and just spending time discerning what’s left in my life and knowing that because of my experience of working with people, with low-income families and people who are in crisis that I am being called to be a bridge to the church, and that I have something to say to the Church. And hopefully, to help people realize we’re all in this life together, and sometimes, that requires that we listen and figure out where we can help.”
The hope is that her expertise and experience working with low-income individuals and families will help her work with already-in-place programming at Parkersburg UMC that aids low-income families.
Rapking says she’s not unaware she’s going to be stepping back up to the pulpit at a contentious time in the United Methodist Church’s history.
At the UMC’s General Conference meeting in St. Louis, Missouri in late February, members ultimately voted to continue take the stance that homosexuality is immoral; ban gay and lesbian people from serving as clergy; and oppose same-sex marriage.
The resulting decision has spurred questions about a split within the United Methodist Church.
“I’m going back into full-time parish ministry at a difficult time for the church, and I know that,” Rapking said. “My hope for my beloved United Methodist Church is that we will receive all people with the love and grace and mercy that Jesus offers to the whole world.”
Reflections on a nine-year tenure
Rapking, who is earning her doctorate in ministry via an international program through the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and Wesley House at Cambridge University, also reflected on her most challenging and most joyful times during her tenure as Parish House director.
“The most challenging part of [being the Parish House director] has always been to find resources to make sure we have enough money and enough resources to do what we need to do to help others,” she says. “We’ve never had to close our doors while I’ve been here, and they never have had to close since we’ve been open.
“But there’ve been times when we’ve wondered – situations where we have $75 dollars left in the account. We can help one more family, and then a big donation comes in.”
And the most joy-filled experiences?
“Probably some of the most rewarding things are the most simple things – just sitting downstairs having coffee with our neighbors. Having a selfie with Aaron, who comes every day when we serve lunch, and having him ask me for it over and over again because it’s important to him,” Rapking says, tearing up.
“I’ve done three weddings in the Parish House and so, having people see me as their pastor. Praying with folks. Having people stop me in Walmart because they know me and tell me something that’s going on; very often, they are needs that they may have, but also joys. Meeting their kids when they don’t bring their kids in regularly.”
Rapking has also relished being welcomed back when she’s returned from trips abroad or other travels.
“I’ve also loved seeing how generous this community is, and how this community gets involved,” she said.
The Parish House’s future – and a slew of thank-yous
Rapking says her successor, Kristi Wilkerson, current director of Christian education and programming at First UMC in Buckhannon and an Upshur County Board of Education member, will be a great fit for the position.
“Kristi has been in, among and around us. Her skills of because of what she does of connecting people in the community will be a great fit,” Rapking said. “She knows our philosophy, she knows what we do, she has volunteered here. She has helped people volunteer here. She has a passion for people who can’t speak for themselves, and her connection to the school board will be very helpful and her connections in the community that I don’t have – and in the state – will helpful.”
“She is already involved in lots of different ways, so she can continue to tell our story,” she added. “I’m excited about what Kristi will bring because she will see things differently than I do and bring new wisdom and new vision and new opportunities for the community and for the Parish House and Crosslines.”
Rapking said she’s leaving with a heart full of gratitude for the people she’s met, for the organizations she’s worked with, and, last but not least, for the love and patience she’s received from her West Buckhannon Charge, made up of the West Buckhannon and Mt. Lebanon United Methodist churches.
“It’s been a great nine years, and I am so grateful for all the people that I’ve met, for all the ways I’ve been encouraged, for all the ways people have supported us. I want to thank my churches – my little West Buckhannon Charge. They have stepped up and helped me in ways, this year, that have been very encouraging and hopeful to me.”
Rapking says because of her job as Parish House director, she hasn’t always been able to be present when members of the charge get sick or have surgery.
“I can’t always be there for everything, and they have been very patient and encouraging, and I appreciate them sharing me, and I want to thank them.”