Twelve decades ago, five Delray Beach men founded the Methodist Episcopal Church South, now Cason United Methodist Church of Delray Beach. The congregation celebrated its 120th anniversary during a March 19 party with food and drink on the shady church grounds. Dozens of people came after the 11 a.m. service to celebrate the church with live music, fellowship and thanks.
Imagine what that first service 120 years ago was like, Pastor David Schmidt said to his congregation. Twelve people came. The church had no doors or windows and a sailcloth roof. Yet its vision hasn’t changed, Schmidt said. The church was and is a place where “all will find the love of God.”
For some people, Cason will always be the “pumpkin church.” Each year thousands of orange orbs, big and small, cover the ground at the busy corner of North Swinton Avenue and Lake Ida Road. Hundreds of visitors return every year, and the tradition continues.
But others have been lost. Like all churches, Cason has faced challenges over the years.
In the mid-2000s, falling membership numbers and cash flow problems plagued the church. In 2008, the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, the governing body, planned to close the doors.
But church members stepped up and showed financial support to prove the community wanted and needed Cason. Then Candy Evans and Lori Robbins started the community garden on the wide swath of land beside the church.
For 14 years, the garden helped the church, giving it a new identity. It brought in growers (the recession had made the idea of growing your own vegetables very, ahem, palatable). It spread goodwill by donating 25,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Caring Kitchen food bank. And between 2008 and 2012, church attendance doubled.
Thankfully, church leaders had recognized Cason was worth saving and they brought in the Rev. Linda Mobley, a church health specialist from Lakeland, to take over as pastor and lead the church into better times.
Schmidt says that part of the reason the church had been in free-fall was it had been too “inward-focused.” When there were issues, “we circled the wagons,” Schmidt said. Even when the church continued to struggle, Schmidt and others brought a new energy and optimism to the mix.
Schmidt had been a member of Cason for about five years before he joined officially as its youth minister in December 2012. He rose through the ranks from associate pastor to interim pastor and to senior pastor in May 2022. He will be officially ordained after he earns his master of divinity degree from Southern Methodist University in May.
But Schmidt says his work in the youth ministry forced him to focus outward.
“I had to find ways to bring young people to Christ,” he said. He recognized that some young people came to church to do service and found worship, which was opposite of the “old way,” where kids were brought to Sunday services and found a calling to serve.
Schmidt surmised, correctly, that young people could be attracted to the work the church was doing — feeding the hungry, helping the homeless, enriching the lives of kids — but not necessarily to Sunday services. He thought the group, and the church, needed to be “mission-focused, because that’s what God wants us to do.”
By serving the community, the church has seen an increase in attendance at Sunday worship, in new mission projects and with 26 new members in the past year.
The members embraced the new core message: “inSPIRE,” which zeros in on five tenants of Christianity called the Five Pillars: service, worship, discipleship, hospitality and generosity.
Then the congregation and church leadership began “the hard work of transforming,” Schmidt said, which meant striking down change’s toughest foe: the adage that “this is the way we’ve always done it.”
Progress has been slow but steady and Schmidt’s congregation is grateful for his enthusiasm and hard work. Nancy Reames commented on his blog in October: “Your leadership is gutsy and inspiring, and we are blessed to have you.”
But Schmidt says it isn’t about him.
“The church isn’t the building. The true church is the believers. When we celebrated our anniversary, I wasn’t looking back,” he said. “I was looking forward to what the church can do in the next 120 years. We were celebrating what’s to come.”
Cason United Methodist Church is at 342 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Services are at 9:15 a.m. (casual, contemporary) and 11 a.m. (traditional). 561-276-5302 or www.casonumc.org.
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at email@example.com.