There is no doubt that we are on a mission. In the recent weeks, God has really opened a lot of doors for us and we have gone through them. The verses that come to mind are those from 2 Corinthians, “For we are Christ’s ambassadors, as if God was making his appeal through us...” I think there is little doubt that we are called to be a witness in this neighborhood. This neighborhood speaks at least 20 languages, and has people from at least 25 different nations living in it. We don't have to go very far to "go to the nations."
We defined our neighborhood as 43 square blocks. This isn’t meant to be exclusive in any way, it’s simply that you have to begin somewhere. We anticipate that our perception of neighborhood will continue to grow and push out until it includes first the entire city and then the entire world.
Things really seemed to get started when we began doing an outreach to a local apartment complex with mostly immigrant tenants. Over the summer we went four times, bringing bounce houses, playing soccer (and giving away balls), meeting and greeting and serving lunch. Two of our four visits featured food from restaurants in our neighborhood that came to us as a reduced cost but helped to boost the profile of the restaurants in the community.
We also went door to door. We aren’t finished yet, by any means. But we started with the houses that were in immediate proximity to the church building. The ones that shared a property line or were across a street from us. We asked, “How could our church be a better neighbor?” Some people had ideas and shared neighborhood news and concerns. (Who know drainage and weeds could be holy conversations?) Other times they didn’t have much to say but seemed glad for the contact. We gave people information about the church and invited them to services, including the new Wednesday night service with the “free” dinner beforehand. If they were home and talked to us, we also gave them a $10 gift certificate to a popular, new, neighborhood restaurant. Since beginning this, a Christian bookstore in town has given us coupons to hand out as well.
Next, I started introducing myself at local businesses. Always inviting people to church and always offering to be helpful. One local restauranteur, an Iraqi gentleman who has been in business for 3 months, took us up on the offer to help and our church was able to provide a houseful of furniture for a recently arrived Iraqi family. Today, two more families have come forward from the Iraqi community seeking help getting settled in this new land.
Then there are the local churches. These visits are still in progress, but great friendships are being made and partnerships being formed. Neighborhood pastors seem hungry for fellowship and eager to be part of something that more resembles the body of Christ than flying a solo mission. It leaves me excited for the future: what would it look like if we, as churches, called to be one body, could work together?
Our neighborhood has a mall so we went there next. The new general manager has only been there for 3 months so we were his first official neighborhood visitor. We asked, “How can our church bless the mall?” No one laughed or ushered us out of the office. The manager, a Mormon, thinks churches are great partners. We agreed to pray for the mall. Further, the mall agreed to do a coat drive for the kids in our neighborhood who can’t afford coats this year. Plus, he agreed to be part of a neighborhood e-mail chain that will include pastors, business leaders, school principals and other neighborhood leaders so that we could all work together to help to meet the area’s needs and solve problems together.
Next, we started to meet with the local elementary schools and head start program. Turns out, rather than being afraid of us and our religion, they are eager for any help we can provide as we all seek to meet the needs of the neighborhood’s children together. I think that for us, part of our ease of access has to do with the fact that the Area Education Association, which helps to train and equip teachers and administrators, uses our building weekly for meetings and conferences and many of our local school officials have been in our church. We have more schools that need visits but things are really moving along well so far.
There is no doubt in my mind that the congregation has caught the vision. We unveiled much of what we saw God doing and where we felt he was leading us last weekend at Sunday services. The response has been incredible. Lots of comments, lots of helpers, and lots of follow up e-mails. Today, a member of the church told me how she and her husband had lunch at one of the restaurants we’ve been working with and about she introduced herself and how this led to a really inspiring conversation.
Where are we going from here? We believe that God is calling us to continue our relationship with the first apartment complex and reach out to others in the spring. We’re praying through which ones and how right now. We also hope to have a traveling Vacation Bible School that can bring a kid friendly Gospel to various places in our neighborhood, especially our sister church’s campus in the Drake University area.. That means we need three strong teams to organize this winter to deploy for monthly events this spring and summer. We’ll continue to emphasize the tutoring program and seek to add more tutors and students. We’ve seen incredible growth in that program and so thankful to God for his graciousness in allowing us to be a part of his great plan.
I think we really some sort of bus. So we’re praying about that too. Last night we filled a 15 passenger van and a Ford Excursion with kids. We had nearly 25 between the two vehicles and more that arrived in a third vehicle. Over twenty kids are coming just from one apartment complex. I think about what it would be like if a bus could go over to that complex on Sunday mornings as well. How many of these kids, who just love to hang out at church, would want to come back on Sundays? It’s amazing. It’s miraculous. It’s God. So if any of you reading can provide a bus, you know where to find me. God bless and thanks for reading. PJ