By Becky Ahlberg
The letter was sitting in my box out in the main office. It had already been opened, so I wondered what was up. It was a short note from a heroin addict who had been arrested for selling drugs and who was in the county jail on her way to prison. Her children were living with her mother now, and her mother lived right across from the church.
Her request: “Could you please check on my girls? I’m worried about them.”
Great. How do I get these? I am ashamed to tell you that my first thoughts were ones of irritation and reluctance. But . . . I was the family life minister, and she probably wouldn’t write again anyway, so, OK . . . I wrote a short note back, told her I’d be “happy” to check in on her girls, told her that I’d pray for her and hoped she would write again.
It was really quite a professional note. I did check on her girls. I did pray for her . . . as I wrote the note. That was it.
And to this day, I am haunted (and ashamed) by the fact that I almost didn’t answer that note. It is so easy to be frustrated with “those needy people” who can take up so much of our time. And yet, when we stop to think about it, that is what we’re supposed to be doing!
Well, she did write back, and we began a long correspondence while she was “away.” The day after she got out (March 20, 2000), she came to meet me at the church. Together we embarked on an adventure that neither one of us could have predicted and certainly didn’t feel qualified to tackle.
Since then she has been baptized and eventually baptized all three of her children and, well, long story short, she is now the office manager at our church, a student at Hope International University, and a good friend.
What if I hadn’t answered that letter?
A SIMPLE PHONE CALL
They came every Sunday—filled up a whole row. They were residents in a women’s drug rehab facility that was just a few blocks from the church. I rarely spoke to them because they came in at the last minute and left immediately following the service. The one thing I noticed most was that almost every week at least one of them cried during worship.
There was a significant, continuous turnover because it was only a 90-day program. When they were done, they went back to their homes all around Orange County. They had become involved in a small Celebrate Recovery program that was meeting in a building adjacent to the church.
The director of that program retired and was leaving town, and we wondered if we should try to do something more with them. Our continued success with our aforementioned “ex-con” motivated us to figure out a way to work with these women.
After repenting of my bad attitude about returning letters, I was determined to at least follow up on this need, so I called to see if I could get an appointment with the director of the rehab facility. She was a Christian and believed the women she worked with needed the Lord—so she brought them every week. After a brief but energizing conversation, we dove into a program of Bible study and ministry with these women, and it has literally changed the life of our church.
Long story short, in 2008, the church leadership approved a feasibility study to determine just what we could/should do. Now, a year later, we are in the process of launching a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Our goal is to work with single mothers “struggling with foundational life skills dysfunction” of which substance abuse is just one of the debilitating challenges they face.
What if I hadn’t made that call?
JUST A MEETING
The e-mail invited me to attend the quarterly meeting of the Anaheim Religious Community Council. It was a lunch meeting, the first of the new year, and it would be a chance to meet some community leaders. I was in the very first month of the feasibility study mentioned above. I didn’t know anyone and was actually pretty clueless about what to do, but thought I could at least meet a few people who might know something.
The program that day was presented by the Crime Suppression Unit of the Anaheim Police Department. The unit was launching a program under the CalGRIP (Gang Reduction, Intervention, and Prevention) program to reach the community in central Anaheim (surrounding the church) and get serious about the growing gang problem. They were applying for a collaboration grant and were required to include a partner from the “faith community.” Would any of us be interested?
About 10 of us from the “religious community” signed up to attend a meeting later that week. I was the only one who showed up! Present at that meeting were the chief of police and a number of officers, an Orange County district attorney, the director of pupil services from the Anaheim City School District, and principals from our neighborhood elementary schools.
They treated me like a VIP. They were thrilled that someone actually came (how tragic is that . . . a whole other article!).
It quickly became evident that not only could we play an active and productive role in this important community endeavor, but God had opened the door to relationships that have been pivotal in our goal of working with single mothers. The officials were able to provide me with the sobering, but motivating statistics that confirmed our concern for this demographic. They connected me with important people in the city who were looking for partners to address the issues of these women. They connected me to the teachers and staffs at our local schools who taught the children of these women.
Long story short, they have all become good friends and colleagues, and our church is seen as a significant partner in a pilot program that is already making a huge impact in our community.
What if I hadn’t gone to that meeting?
COOKIES, AMAZING COOKIES!
One of GRIP’s first projects was trying to get the attention of parents from the target schools. The mantra is: “We don’t have a gang problem, we have a parent problem.” Participation by parents in any part of the school program was minimal, be it parent conference, informational meeting, PTA, etc. So this was going to be a major effort to contact parents and get them to attend a meeting.
Where should we have it? What should the program be? Who should be involved? It was only my second meeting, so I merely was observing. Then they asked, “How are we going to get them there?” Ideas included personal calls, contests in classrooms, and assistance from other community agencies.
And then someone said, “Maybe we should try to have food or something . . . you know, like coffee or cookies.” I sat up. We could do that.
Long story short, GRIP’s Parenting Partners meetings have become a huge success, and we now have a 20-member “Cookie Crew” at the church that provides 80-dozen cookies the first Sunday of every month. Our young adults host a special reception for GRIP Parenting Partners at two different schools every month featuring “those homemade grandma cookies!”
This past November, one of the schools reported 100 percent participation at the parent conferences! It was the first time anyone could remember that happening. Both principals credit those “amazing cookies” with playing a significant role in the turnaround. Cookies!
Are you picking up a pattern here? Not one of these moves was a cataclysmic idea: answer a letter, make a phone call, go to a meeting, bake cookies . . . but they have brought about cataclysmic changes and energizing focus to a small, urban, 115-year-old congregation determined to continue to grow as we seek to be obedient to God and the work of the kingdom.
The key to our progress has been following through. In a relatively short period of time, we have become the “go-to” church when things need to get done in central Anaheim. We are building a wonderful relationship with a myriad of community agencies just because we are showing up and asking, “What do you need?”
Our experience has been that government and community agencies are desperate for the help. Most will accede that the “faith community” has a vital role to play—especially in the long-term assistance of community families. We have tried to leave our agendas behind, honestly seek to do what is needed (not just what we assume is needed) and, again, follow through.
We’re not sure where all of this is going to lead. Throughout our feasibility study, there have been many unforeseen twists and turns. But we do know this—we can’t go back. We’re determined to stay involved for the long haul. Finding the funding, forming the structure, building relationships, and gaining credibility will all take time. But we are convinced God will use our efforts and teach us as we go.
Many are talking about “getting our hands dirty” or engaging in communities around the country, but don’t know where to begin. What could your church do? The first, most important thing is just to walk through the open doors. God will open the doors, if you will open your eyes and your hearts. Spend a little extra time over your mail and your messages. Look around with eyes wide open.
Long story short, it’s not complicated. It’s just a matter of paying attention and remembering that Christ is wondering what we’re doing for “the least of these” that surround us every day.
If you’re willing, he is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20, 21).
Becky Ahlberg is minister of worship and neighborhood engagement at First Christian Church, Anaheim, California. She serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor.