A Tale of Two Churches Finding Ways to Engage their Communities – Fall Issue 2009

Answering the Cries of our Community

Every morning that I park my truck in front of our church office space I’m reminded of at least two things: First, we rent on a street where folks in desperate situations like to hang out.  This is a reality that you can see, smell, hear, touch and if you really wanted to…you could taste it in our parking lot (this is not recommended).  From the lot to the door, looking through the office windows generates the second realization; for as many as 90 people, our space (due to the work of several) has turned into a place where these folks choose to begin their day and on several different levels call their home base.     

You can imagine the host of questions and doubts that come with work among a population where obvious change is hard-earned over long periods of time. On the flip side imagine the thrill of seeing transformation that begins at such an extreme low and the inherent potential of this diverse community. How does a person whose belief has turned into a dedicated following of Jesus play out when presented with this kind of opportunity? 

Ann and Shelagh represent what I am discerning as the answer to that query. Their commitment is to staff our space six mornings per week, delivering on a promise to provide a space where the anxiety of personal needs is replaced with a different taste of community, coffee and toast depending on who is making up each. Coupled with their morning efforts, teams from New Heights host meals on Saturday and Sunday evening with an agenda of filling stomachs, engaging in conversation and fielding prayer requests. After several years of this kind of action, with a few huge success stories, and countless disappointments, questions in my mind clash with the rhythm of our heartbeat for this community. Welcome to the inner regions of my mind…no doubt a scary place!!!

With a friend at the last General Conference, a tough criteria surfaced.  “Is a ministry that doesn’t effectively move many people toward interacting with the gospel in their own right still viable”? Or, “when does serving folks morph into enabling folks?” These are good questions to ask when a commitment to be in the lives of very complicated people goes long term. On one hand, we hear Jesus’ words “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” So, maybe our hands can ignore each other, but the relationship between our brains and hands is one of a different kind.  Is it fair to substitute ‘impact’ for ‘debit’ and ‘enabling’ for ‘liability’ and see whether or not our budget sheet lands in the red or the black?

On the other hand (which a hand can ignore but a mind cannot) it is clear that the impact of a work that is observed by the community at large accomplishes more than just what happens in the food line.  Weigh the risk of occasional enabling and usury with the WIN-COMBO that touches the servants, the served, the community at large, the partnerships with other ministries and municipal efforts, and the incredible feeling of seeing a client turn servant.  The balance tips toward the combo. 

Add to that the experiment of using “partnership in service” as a venue for evangelism for the servant herself.  Not only does this work touch the lives of those who are clients but what about those who come eager to be involved.  Our invitation is, “Come and experience our motivation for a common passion of philanthropy; be warned that you might be moved by what has turned our philanthropy into a mission of worshipping God with hands and hearts”.

I hope this article isn’t printed in black and white because I certainly see the content coming out in color or grayscale at the very least.   An emerging principle to chew on:  When our believing community endeavors to partner or model things in our wider community we must be prepared to weigh questions where our answers leave us less than completely satisfied.  But, what we are experiencing is what I’ve come to expect when our efforts move outside of the walls of our church; a tension caused by the differences we have with those we encounter rather than our similarities.  Maybe in praxis we can adopt what every intro-apologetics class seems to teach in terms of debating faith.  Begin by gaining a hearing through the celebration of similarities and earn the ear of those who want to agree with you, but naturally don’t jive with your Lord’s supernatural instincts.    At the end of the day, rubbing shoulders in service with the community and for the community accomplishes more in fostering relationship than anything else that I’ve ever been part of.  

As I mature and learn leadership lessons I am discovering a principle that fits into our belief that God is at work in the world and is inviting us to join him.  The ministries that He seems to sustain and bless often accomplish much “more than what meets the eye” (to borrow from Hollywood’s transformers).  As agents of change and transformation we have to allow for the undercurrent transformations that happen just because we are faithfully and consistently walking in simple acts of obedience and trust that as much as being a group that is active in the community comes with complication and cost, the combination of wins are worth the endeavor.  Be encouraged church, that our communities haven’t closed the door on us yet;  they might not be knocking, asking for our advice, but when we extend ourselves in partnership…our efforts have great rewards.  Who is waiting for the opportunity to partner with you in your community?

Rev. Greg Elford is the Pastor of New Heights Community Church in Mission, BC

Empty plates? . . . Great idea!

The Ottawa Mission, a homeless shelter located in the heart of the Nation’s Capital served 2,679 Thanksgiving meals this year and 1100 meals a day over the Thanksgiving season. Arlington Woods Free Methodist Church raised $930 toward the cost of providing them.  We are not only grateful for their support, but also amazed by their creativity!

I decided to contribute a newsletter submission for three reasons : to say thank-you to Arlington Woods for their extraordinary support, to tell you about the unique event they coordinated for the homeless in our community, and to offer your church some ways that they can get more involved with a charity like ours.

A Loaves And Fishes Story – Without The Loaves and Fishes
On Sunday October 4, after hearing an inspiring sermon about gratitude, the whole Arlington Woods congregation was invited to retreat to the church hall. A look of puzzlement crossed many faces as they exited the sanctuary. No one realized that this service was going to be different.

As the congregation filed into the hall, they were invited to a meal. Round tables were covered with tablecloths and decked out for Thanksgiving. There were plates, cutlery and cups. People were invited to sit down for dinner.

Then Cheryl Burford, the director of children’s ministries and administrator of “Church In Motion,” an outreach initiative, explained the “dinner.” She told the congregation that there wasn’t going to be any food at this dinner and reminded them that many people in our community didn’t have the resources to put food on their plates. “This Thanksgiving,” she said “many people will face empty plates like the ones you have in front of you.”

Prior to the dinner, Cheryl had asked Michael, a graduate of The Ottawa Mission’s LifeHouse program to tell his story at the event.  LifeHouse is a five-month, residential addiction treatment program run by The Ottawa Mission. Mike told the group how The Ottawa Mission had changed his life. “Hi, I’m Mike,” he began. “And I’m an alcoholic.” As if on cue, the congregation responded “Hi, Mike.” Mike continued to tell the congregation how alcoholism cost him his wife and children and that he had relied on The Ottawa Mission’s food services while he was in treatment. It was obvious that his honesty and openness really affected those listening to him.

After hearing Michael’s story and learning more about The Ottawa Mission in general, Cheryl asked her congregation to consider filling up someone’s empty plate this Thanksgiving by filling out the Thanksgiving Dinner donation cards that The Ottawa Mission had provided. “Consider what you are able to give…any amount will be appreciated,” she said.

Amazingly, $930 was donated, the equivalent of 409 meals! What a blessing to us and to the homeless men, women and children we serve!

A Free Methodist “Church In Motion”
Arlington Woods  Free Methodist Church is truly a church in motion. In fact, one third of Cheryl Burford’s full-time portfolio is devoted to administering “Church In Motion,” a congregational outreach initiative. “Our church believes that the community is important. Church In Motion is about finding organizations in the community and partnering with them in order to serve the world around us,” says Burford. Burford volunteered at The Ottawa Mission for last Thanksgiving’s dinner when she was considering who to partner with for Thanksgiving, she thought about The Ottawa Mission. The idea of empty plates sprung to mind immediately. “I just thought, without this Thanksgiving meal, people would have an empty plate,” says Burford. “The idea took off from there, but I think that the visual is important and decided to invite someone The Ottawa Mission had helped so that I could put a personal face on The Mission. One of our members is on the Board at The Mission and he helped me contact Michael.”

The Ottawa Mission isn’t alone in benefitting from the Church In Motion initiative. Partnering with various organizations in the community, Church In Motion takes on four service projects a year. They have partnered with a local grocery store to do a food drive, volunteered at a special Olympics basketball tournament, did yard work for seniors in the community and opened their doors to 1st Place Pregnancy Centre. “I try to find ways that the whole church can get involved, no matter their ages” says Burford.

How Your Church Can Partner With A Non-Profit In Your Community
Non-profit ministries like The Ottawa Mission rely on church support. The Ottawa Mission couldn’t serve 1100 meals a day, offer over 230 people shelter each night and operate an addiction treatment centre, hospice, housing programs or learning centre without strong church partnerships.

Here are some ways that your church can get involved with ministries like ours:

Volunteer On And Off-Site
Ottawa Mission volunteers more than double our capacity to serve clients. At The Ottawa Mission, volunteer groups do everything from serving and preparing meals to folding clothes, sorting donations, painting, and planting; there is no shortage of ways to help.  One of our volunteer groups brings in baked goods that they make off-site which is a special treat for our clients. Others knit toques and blankets to keep the homeless warm or make and donate quilts for our second stage housing initiatives. Contact the non-profit that your church is interested in partnering with and I’m sure that they will be happy to provide you with volunteer opportunities.

Host A Fundraiser
You can raise the kind of awareness and funding that will change lives forever by hosting an event to benefit a ministry in your community. You can host a dinner (spaghetti dinners are popular among youth groups), a bake sale, or auction your congregation member’s talents. Coordinating a winter boot and coat drive or a sock drive is an invaluable way to give to the homeless.  Don’t forget to contact the charity prior to your event as they may be able to send along brochures or even a speaker so that your church understands more deeply how important its gifts are.

Provide Prayerful Support
Prayer is vitally important. Some organizations keep a regularly-updated, publicly accessible prayer request list. The chaplain at The Ottawa Mission, for example, regularly updates prayer requests on our website (www.ottawamission.com) so that church prayer groups can learn more about the needs of those we serve and include them in their prayer life. Directing prayer groups to prayer requests posted on-line or printing them in the church bulletin not only helps those in need but also helps the congregation understand and feel more connected to the ministry.

Distribute Newsletters
Non-profits want your congregation members to learn more about them. Most publish newsletters or annual reports and would be more than happy to provide you with them either in print or in an electronic format. Make their newsletters available on your bulletin boards and information tables or e-mail it to members.

Invite A Speaker
Stories are powerful! Contact a charity that you want to get involved with or have already partnered with and invite a spokesperson to a Sunday service or a special anniversary service to share stories about how their ministry changes lives. Most would be more than happy to come to your church, thank you for your support and tell your members how they have made a difference.

Take A Tour
One of the best ways to understand what an organization actually does and how your dollars are being put to work is to see it first-hand. Call an organization you are supporting and ask them if they offer tours to groups. Provided that privacy isn’t an issue, most will be delighted to show you around.

Inquire About Educational Initiatives

Some non-profits have a public education aspect of their ministry. At The Ottawa Mission, for example, we invite youth groups and social justice committees to The Mission for educational sessions where we discuss issues of social justice, poverty and faith. Our Bible studies are eye-opening and heart-enlarging experiences. If you are supporting a Christian charity, they may be able to offer groups within your church a Christian-education session.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a freelance writer and communications officer at The Ottawa Mission.