What’s it like to live and serve in a town that’s been named “The Nicest Place in America”? The Rev. Ellen Bierlein, the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Buchanan, reflects.
Senior Writer and Content Editor
“How blessed am I!” exclaims Pastor Ellen Bierlein. “Ever since the first time I came to Buchanan, Michigan, I have said, ‘This is the nicest community I have ever experienced.’ Apparently, I am not the only one who feels that way!”
Indeed. Buchanan — a town of 4,500 people nestled in southwest Michigan’s Berrien County, just 10 miles from the Indiana border – was chosen Nicest Place in America by Reader’s Digest out of 1,177 entries in the 2020 competition. “United in Kindness” was this year’s theme, and applicants were asked to give special consideration to those who have stood up against the pandemic and racism.
The story, “Fighting COVID-19 and racial injustice, Buchanan, Michigan is the nicest place in America,” was written by Jeremy Greenfield, senior editor of Reader’s Digest. Find it here, along with accounts of other nice places around the nation. Note also that Greenfield interviewed renowned Michigan writer and “moral voice of America,” Mitch Albom, regarding his thoughts on the selection of Buchanan and the trials of 2020.
“Number One Nicest Place in America! That’s us!” Bierlein says. “I feel honored to be part of what is happening here.”
Greenfield’s account begins with this editor’s note: “In a challenging year for America, when the COVID-19 pandemic and the evil of racial injustice pushed so many places to the brink, what set Buchanan, Michigan, apart? The 2020 Nicest Place in America is a town that would not be defeated by the coronavirus while uniting to say that Black lives do matter. It’s a place that has something to teach us all about caring for each other—even the least among us—not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.”
Take time to read the rest of the story, which features what happened following the Memorial Day Parade’s cancellation last May.
Pastor Bierlein was appointed to Buchanan First United Methodist Church in July 2018. So, what’s it like to be a resident of Buchanan? She calls the award, announced October 8, “a statement of who we are, what we do, and what we stand for.” She adds, “In the same month that fanatics planned to kidnap our governor, we Bucks, also from Michigan, are recognized for our unity of cause and purpose.”
Bierlein participated in the March for Racial Justice that took place on June 8, spoken of in the Digest story. She recalls, “I walked with a Christian sister from Buchanan and a gentleman carrying and pushing his children in a stroller as he walked. I walked with a lot of different people because I walk slowly. Different people came beside me, talked, and then walked beyond my pace.” She then reflects, “Isn’t that like life? We all pass one another on the journey. How can we best learn from one another along life’s path?”
Asked to share ways that she personally has experienced the “niceness” of Buchanan over her two years in town, Ellen immediately responds, “Buchanan people will help anybody any time. Each person I have encountered will go out of their way to be helpful.”
Buchanan First United Methodist Church has moved through the COVID-19 season in that same spirit. Ellen reports, “In March, as First UMC faced our church’s closure due to Covid-19, we began meeting as a church council every week to make decisions as we went forward.” They decided that their mission was “to help those in need due to the unknown circumstances that were looming.” The pastor was authorized to pass her business card wherever she went and “inform people that we want to be of assistance wherever needed.”
Ellen explains, “My cards have my name, church name, and cell number on the front; but on the back is Romans 15:13, May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” She shares each card with prayer. “Every time I give one my cards, I pray that the God of hope will minister to the lives of the person and family of all who touch the card. I believe God has done that in Buchanan.”
And, as God so often has it, when Ellen blesses, she is blessed. One place, among many, where she has shared her card, is the local McDonald’s. “I began in the pandemic thinking I might be able to help them, but it has been just the opposite,” she remarks. “They are always kind and uplifting. As I drive up for my daily iced tea, staff listen, but more importantly, they share. They hear things as people wait in line. The staff has asked for my card more than once because they had given away their copy to someone else.” Fast food ministry at its finest.
Niceness abounds within the congregation, too. Pastor Bierlein says, “Our church people are the salt of the earth, who can make everyone feel welcome and included every time they attend our church. I could not be prouder of their ministry of hospitality.” Congregational care has also increased in recent months. “During the pandemic, some of our members have taken it upon themselves to write many of our people who are sheltering at home,” Ellen reports. “When I call them, I receive multiple thank-you’s for the loving cards that express how they are remembered and missed.”
Ellen lists what she calls “amazing” outreach into the community over the past few months. “The congregation helped a family living in their car, mothers with food and rent insecurity, a girl living on the street, a woman with severe disabilities needing yard work, and many people needing groceries and medicine.” Prayers and Bibles accompany every gift. “I pray with them all and share that it is because of Jesus’ love that we are investing in them.”
The Reader’s Digest feature includes mention of Buchanan’s ecumenical community action agency, saying, “One of the town’s largest benefactors is called Redbud Area Ministries (RAM). (Buchanan is called Redbud City for the vibrant redbud trees that line its streets.) RAM provides food, clothing, employment assistance, and counseling to their ‘guests’ and ‘friends’—never ‘the needy’ or ‘clients,’ says executive director Jan Nowak-Walters.”
Pastor Bierlein explains that Redbud Area Ministries was organized 20 years ago through the efforts of the Buchanan Area Ministerial Association.
Herself a member of BAMA, Bierlein, says, “at our recent meeting, two pastors and I expressed willingness to support those who are still needing financial assistance after RAM has done all it can do.” She adds, “That is the character of our community.”
First United Methodist Church regularly has more volunteers at Redbud Area Ministries than any church and donates more to giving challenges than any other body, according to the pastor. And the pandemic did not put a dent in generosity. Bierlein notes, “When the pandemic hit, RAM was slammed with donations. They could not easily house all the food and gifts given to them. At the same time, they worked to adjust to giving out food and items while protecting their workers, who are mostly older adults.”
Some support for RAM is provided by the “Scarecrow Ladies,” whose creations show up on downtown streets every September. “Each scarecrow has the name of the business or organization that has paid for the honor,” Bierlein states. “These straw people both advertise and entertain. The scarecrow woman representing First UMC this year is dressed surprisingly similar to my style of fashion!” she laughs. “It’s just one more way the city celebrates its people!” In addition to supporting RAM, the scarecrow revenue goes to other local causes, including scholarships.
What’s next after you’ve been named the Nicest Place in America? Pastor Ellen Bierlein says, “My prayer is that we continue to grow in our inclusiveness and graciousness. Because we have been given much, we have much to give.”
“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)