In the spring, summer, fall and winter, church neighbors of Chatham United Methodist Church enjoy popcorn, sandwiches, cookies and soft drinks as they watch family-friendly films “under the stars.” Folks of all ages pull up a lawn chair or drive up in their car to watch a movie that begins at sunset.
The events take place on the “old high school front yard,” located across the street from Chatham UMC. A giant blow-up movie screen, an InFocus-type projection system, a quality sound system and a DVD of a first-run movie are the only tools needed to make Movies Under the Stars a success.
“This ministry targets church neighbors and the greater Chatham community, reaching those who might never attend a church service or other more traditional church activity,” said Rev. Lala L. Ball Cooper, pastor.
Hours before the event, a set-up crew erects the screen on the elevated floor of a flatbed trailer. Typically, the audience starts to gather about a half hour before the movie begins. Many received personal invitations to come; more found out about Movies Under the Stars through a banner in front of the church, the electronic scrolling sign in front of the local bank, flyers delivered to their homes, or by reading a promotional article in the Jackson Parish newspaper.
“Community movie nights allow us to form nurturing relationships so that Chatham UMC can discover and meet needs in the lives of these people who have become our friends,” said Ball Cooper, who admits that they “shamlessly” plug church events and worship before the movie begins. After the movie ends, and especially if the movie is an inspirational one, they give a “brief evangelistic gospel presentation.”
In the spring, the movie is selected to appeal to children. The summer movie holds a spiritual message. “They come in late fall to enjoy an uplifting Christmas movie. They even come in the winter with quilts, blankets and afghans in tow to wrap up and watch an action movie or a movie with an evangelistic message,” she added.
“Because of Movies under the Stars, we have gotten to know our neighbors whose paths we might never have crossed in spite of the fact that many of them live within a city block of our church. Folks who wouldn’t otherwise associate with ‘the church people’ come out to watch a movie—perhaps at first under cover of darkness, but later free of any apprehension because they have come to know us. Our church sincerely wants them all and has invited them all.
Chatham UMC’s church neighborhood is “diverse and colorful”, said Ball Cooper. “Many of our neighbors have real and serious problems that include substance addition and histories of incarceration for various offenses. Some of our neighbors fight hunger.”
Chatham’s demographics indicate a population whose median income comes in well below the poverty level, with 65 percent of the area’s school children receiving free and reduced lunch, she added. “From a distance, it is easy to judge and dismiss the needs of people who are not of our faith, not of our race, not of our economic status, not of our cultural background. But up close, after a relationship forms and even a friendship develops, the needs of those we may have first dismissed as very different from us have also become our priorities. Because of love and friendship, we care more. That is exactly what has happened in our church family through participation in this ministry and other ministries like this. Our neighbors have become our friends—and in some cases, our neighbors have become our family.”