Welcome to my blog...

Green trees, cool water, a gentle breeze...the perfect place to sit at the feet of the Master and learn. Jesus taught so often on the shoreline, and He's still speaking today.

This is where I share the lessons He teaches me, often during the time I spend on the shores of a local lake. I don't have all the answers...and some days I don't have any. But I go here when I need to draw near to Him in a tangible way. Come with me...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Adventures in Community Outreach - Growing Roots

I can still remember sitting in the office, talking to two of my pastors.

"But how will this be different?" one asked.

It was a valid question.  I had been part of a ministry that reached out to a local homeless shelter for women and children.  Initially, we were successful in bringing half a dozen women to the church each Sunday in our church van.  When they moved into their own housing around town, we used a second van to do a loop around the city to pick them up for services and special events.

The first van continued heading to the shelter, week in and week out for over 18 months with no results. During that same time, many of the regulars on the second van became sporadic in attendance, dropping out one by one for a variety of reasons.  The drivers and ministry leadership were discouraged and eventually, van service to the shelter stopped and that ministry was shut down.

Now here I was, a few short months later telling them I felt very strongly that God was telling me to go out into the community.  Their concern was understandable.

"I know it sounds crazy, but honestly, God just won't leave me alone about this."

I explained how a book they had given me at a leadership meeting had said some things that really started me thinking.  It talked about not reinventing the wheel.  Taking the volunteer base of your church and partnering with organizations already doing good works in the community. 

"It's different because this time we'll be like a clearing house of ideas.  We'll match community needs with congregational gifts...and we won't put all our eggs in one basket like we did last time."

I tried to speak with the certainty of my convictions, but in truth, all I knew was that I had tried to brush aside the voice several times, but it always came back again, stronger than before. 

I've written other posts about starting with a food drive, moving beyond our walls to refurbish a "Dress for Success" office, and eventually, doing a makeover for Preservation House, a local shelter.
While doors closed at the women's shelter just a year before, they seemed to swing wide open at Preservation House.

I had never heard of Preservation House until one of those ladies from the van, one who had continued to come to our church, found herself in need of assistance again and landed there.

Right away, this place captured our hearts.  As the congregation took part in the "Adopt a Room" outreach at "PH" as we call it, we got to know some of the families and we followed up with a meal at Thanksgiving and a party at Christmas. We wanted to foster relationships with these families and begin to grow roots at the facility.  To that end, we started a "welcome basket" ministry.  The residents who leave for their own housing get a laundry basket filled with kitchen, bathroom and heath and beauty products to get them started in their new homes.  A Bible and info on the church are included as one last way to reach out and make a connection before they leave the shelter.

In June, during our Central Cares Day outreach, we included PH as one of our work sites, creating an inviting waiting room for visitors, teen room complete with cool seating, fuzzy pillows and flat screen tv and a resource room with tons of books and table space for studying.

But back when we did that first makeover in 2010, God planted a new dream in my heart.  To bring a life skills training course to the residents of the house.  I saw how small changes in their lifestyle could make better use of their meager resources.  So much money was wasted using check cashing services instead of maintaining a checking account.  Food stamps used at the local drug store for groceries could stretch 2 or 3 times as far if they shopped at a food store and used coupons.  I was sure there were other areas where small steps could make big changes too.

I had the dream, but had no idea how to execute it.  I talked to different people about it - one of our contacts at the Salvation Army said he had a program they used, but somehow, we never connected.  I'd bring it up in our planning meetings now and again, and although everyone agreed it was a great idea, still, no plan emerged.

Then one night at a women's Bible study, something happened.  The study was a video series on the book of Jonah and featured Priscilla Shirer, who talked about whether things that come up in our lives are interruptions, or divine interventions.  Priscilla offered the idea that an "interruption" is actually God's invitation to do something beyond our wildest dreams.  When Jonah was willing to allow God to interrupt his life, the result was revival in an entire city!   At the end of the study, Priscilla encouraged those taking part to find their Nineveh and make a difference.

As we discussed possible ideas, I mentioned my dream of a Life Skills class for PH.  One woman in the class came to me and said "I wrote a program like that for my master's thesis...maybe we could bring it to PH."

I asked the pastors to review the program and they gave it a thumbs up. Then I sent the outline to the social worker at the shelter...she liked it.  It has taken the better part of a year since then, but it is obvious that it is God's perfect timing.

The program consists of 8 modules in 3 sections.  Subjects include parental involvement in your child's school, building a network of support, discovering community resources, resume writing, learning about the importance of credit and basic banking, and creating a budget.  The most amazing thing was watching God move just the right people into place to teach each of these classes...the retired principal, the VP of a financial company, employees of the state welfare department, someone who facilitates "Financial Peace University" in our church.  From just one brainstorming meeting for names of people to reach out to for training, we got 90% of our staff.

Although I'm not a church staff member, I am invited to the annual calendar planning meeting since the ministry I head up impacts the entire congregation.  None of the staff had any idea how much progress had been made and who had volunteered to be faculty.  The looks of wonder and amazement around the table as they read over my notes, made my day.

On September 23, 2013, almost 3 years after God gave me the dream, I watched it come to fruition. 12 women attended the first ever Life Skills seminar.

Each person received their own "kit".  A binder with a notebook, one pocket folder (to hold the many informational brochures gathered), a pen, calculator (they'll be creating a budget during the last week), a coupon holder and a 2 year planner.

We were so encouraged by the interest and interaction of our "students". They were engaged, supportive of each other's comments, and genuinely seemed happy to be there.

The exit survey we gave them came back with wonderful feedback, many rating their experience "excellent" and all said they would recommend it to others and be back again the following week.  Also exciting was how many women freely took a Bible - in fact, several who missed taking one from the information table came running after us in the parking lot to get one before we left.

Even more amazing was the phone call I had with the shelter administration this week.  I called to find out the head count for this coming Monday and to determine if childcare was needed.

"I'm so glad you called, Miss Toni!  The two houses we run for men will now be open all day and Dr. Johnson wants to know if you can bring the same kind of programs to the men."

We suggested a Bible study, mentoring, life skills training and a Celebrate Recovery class and the response from shelter administration was "just gather the dates and let's start planning to get you in here."

How will this time be different?

It is night and day.

It is beyond my wildest dreams.  God closed doors so we would head to more fertile ground.  Roots are taking hold.  We pray lives will be changed, and how can they not be when God is so obviously the one working all things together?

Eph. 3:20-21 "God can do anything, you know-far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!  He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.  Glory to God in the church!  Glory to God in the Messiah, In Jesus!  Glory down all the generations!  Glory through all millennia!  Oh, yes!" (The Message)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Adventures in Community Outreach - A Day of Service Part 3 - The Event

It's been a few months and I have been remiss in publishing this last post in my series about Central Cares Day.  At first, it was a matter of finding the right words...


 but, they just didn't begin to capture what happened. 

Then it was processing all the stories.  There were so many "God is in the details" moments.  So many opportunities to share with others why we were out in our community performing acts of service. So many ways our volunteers were positively impacted by things that were said or that happened to them.  God is still giving me glimpses of how He is using that day.

But this most fulfilling of days needs to be chronicled.  And so, I make this humble attempt to relay some of what happened.  If you haven't read all the entries, I would suggest first reading the background on the day, then the nuts and bolts of how it came together before seeing how it all came to fruition.

First and foremost, we wanted to be a blessing to others. 

Some people were fed a meal, others enjoyed companionship and a craft, items were sorted at a food pantry, the atrium of a health clinic was weeded and mulched, city streets were cleared of trash, the grounds of several schools and a community center got some sprucing up and a homeless shelter now feels a lot more like a home.

But, no surprise, God blessed us in return.

The mom of an elementary school age girl was asked what the highlight of the day was for her. "When my daughter said "'Mom, there are so many people out there who need us - can't we keep helping on our own?'"  It was so exciting to hear a young person get that it's not about us, but how we can show God's love to others!

The sentiment of that young lady was echoed by adults who expressed an interest in being involved where they volunteered, on an on-going basis.

At one of the work sites, our group worked with families who attended the school, but not our church.  One young woman from the school group asked how she could get involved in future outreach activities with us.

Another blessing was the internal fellowship factor.  Our church has over 600 people who attend 5 weekend services.  In a number of cases, Central Cares Day provided congregants a way to meet each other for the very first time.  New friendships were created and existing bonds were nourished.

One of our volunteers was unemployed.  She worked with a group at the nursing home we visited and after watching her interact with residents, a supervisor there told her to apply...and she got a job! 

At the Salvation Army where a meal was served to 50+ people, a man came in after walking several miles through two towns. When he saw the blue shirts of our servers, he exclaimed "Man!  You guys are all OVER the place today!"  Our county was blanketed in a sea of blue love.

We were invited back to the homeless shelter a few weeks later - honored guests at their annual summer cookout.  We were presented with a beautiful card made by the residents.  It was filled with thank you notes, poems, and pictures of the residents enjoying their new reception area, teen and resource rooms and it touched our hearts in special way.

Several of the organizations have already asked to secure their spot for next year's Care Day, and we look forward to blessing clients of some of the organizations for our 3rd Annual Christmas Store on December 14th of this year.  In just a few days, we'll be heading back to the shelter to begin teaching life skill classes!  I'll be posting about that soon.

Showing others the love of Christ in practical ways can be as easy as picking up trash off the streets, wielding a paintbrush to brighten a room, or singing hymns and doing a craft.  It just takes a little time and effort to brighten a day, restore hope, kindle a friendship, or tell someone how much God loves them and what he did to secure them a spot with him in heaven for all eternity.

Central Cares Day was a time to bring all that into focus, but we have the opportunity to care each and every day. 

Galatians 6:9  "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."