by Jennifer Taylor
Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, contributes significant time and money to missons. From Mozambique and Afghanistan to New York City and New Orleans, Southland wants to change the world by sharing Jesus with people in need.
But Southland also wants to transform its own city, and launched the “Circles of Influence” program in 2007 to begin more intentional service closer to home.
The program encompasses several major initiatives: supporting students and teachers in area school districts, partnering with local agencies, and developing clinics to offer free health care to individuals without insurance.
Hundreds of students in Lexington receive a free or discounted lunch at school each day but go hungry on the weekends. Southland developed its backpack program to ensure these children have plenty of good food on Saturdays and Sundays; members donate piles of food, and volunteers pack the donations into individual backpacks for each needy child to take home on Friday afternoon. Southland currently stocks more than 250 bags each week for two local elementary schools.
Church members also volunteer as mentors and tutors for kids who need extra academic help to stay at grade level. A family resource coordinator or teacher on staff at each school identifies kids who need the extra attention or a positive role model.
Many of these kids are already on the waiting list for programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters. Although Southland doesn’t affiliate with that program, involvement coordinator Karen Bowman says their mentors meet the same needs.
“Tutors help with schoolwork; mentors have a more open-ended relationship that sometimes extends beyond school,” she says. “Some mentors (with the parents’ permission, of course) take kids to ball games or out for ice cream. This was our hope—for mentors to build friendships with entire families.”
The 50 tutors and 70 mentors have also helped Southland build trust with the school administrations. Principals now alert the church to help with sudden needs like a recently unemployed parent or a teacher without adequate supplies. One school allowed the church to place a box for prayer requests near the staff mailboxes, and the schools often ask Southland to provide volunteers for events.
“The schools have started to see us as a partner in serving these children,” Bowman says. “Sometimes we’re the first organization they call for help, and we love that. The principal at one of the schools even said, ‘Southland has truly changed the culture of our school for the better.’ What a blessing to have that kind of impact!”
Since many local and national nonprofits already serve community needs with excellence, the Circles of Influence initiatives don’t include reinventing the wheel. Southland often refers families and small groups to these projects; spending time with elderly people or helping with home improvement tasks are opportunities for groups with a variety of ages and skills.
Southland directs additional resources into several of its own existing ministries, including Helping Through Him, which gives away clothing and appliances to needy families, and Bruised Reed, an outreach ministry to exotic dancers.
The church also recently began working with Room in the Inn, a homeless sheltering program based in Nashville. Churches offer to house a group of 13-15 homeless men one night each week from November to March and provide hospitality, hot meals, and friendship.
Southland sees the partnership as a way not only to serve the homeless of Lexington, but to introduce church members to the needs of this population in a safe environment.
“About 150 people volunteered to help this first year,” Bowman says. “Some cooked meals, some did laundry, and some spent the night or talked to the men during dinner. It works because everyone can do something in their comfort level.”
The most ambitious Circles of Influence initiatives are the Refuge Medical Clinics, two full-service facilities offering primary medical and dental care to uninsured individuals in Jessamine County (including the cities of Nicholasville and Wilmore) and downtown Lexington.
The Jessamine location launched June 2008 in the county’s own health department building, allowing Southland to start the program without a major investment in facilities. The clinic sees patients Monday through Thursday from 6:00 to 9:00 pm, after the county offices close.
The downtown location, which opened in March, occupies a large renovated warehouse. Although the church needed to transform this space into a medical facility, many church members and area businesses offered the work at low cost and donated dental chairs, exam tables, and more.
“For the first clinic, we determined patients must be uninsured residents of Jessamine County who also meet federal poverty guidelines,” says Rachel Coburn, the Refuge Medical Clinic director. “But so many people in downtown Lexington meet this criteria that the need exceeds the capacity of our new location. So we treat residents of the immediately surrounding area and partner with other local agencies and churches to multiply our influence.”
The downtown location also serves Jessamine County families who attend one of the partner schools Southland works with, as well as some of the homeless men housed through Room in the Inn. This overlap in ministries leads to deeper relationships with many of the people Southland serves.
Hundreds of volunteers work together to make it happen. Nurses, doctors, and dental technicians volunteer their time and expertise; front desk staff schedule appointments and welcome patients; committed prayer teams minister one-on-one; and patient advocates work with each person to identify needs and organize referrals.
“We try to do everything with maximum efficiency and minimum paper,” Coburn says. “Laptops and desktops in each room make this easy for the medical staff, and the front desk team can access portions of those files for scheduling. Of course, we require background checks and extensive training for all volunteers, plus the necessary professional licensure for doctors and nurses.”
Despite this impressive system, neither clinic can provide for every need. For these situations, Refuge has networked with local specialists to provide free or low-cost care, either at the clinic or through referral to another location.
The clinics even have “drug closets” stocked with samples (non-narcotics only) donated by pharmaceutical companies.
“We also work with statewide programs that give medication to indigent patients,” Coburn says. “These programs usually require extensive paperwork, so we help social workers and other advocates work through the system and provide long-term help for these patients.”
Although Southland provided funds to start the clinics, the church invited non-Southland community leaders to participate in the formation of Refuge Ministries, the nonprofit organization providing oversight and board leadership to the two locations.
“Circles of Influence is about expanding Southland’s mission beyond the walls of the church,” Coburn says. “We definitely wanted to involve other people in this new venture. Plus, long-term we want the clinics to be financially independent—supported by other organizations in addition to Southland—so it makes sense to invite that participation from the beginning.”
Keeping the Change
Although Southland developed Circles of Influence to serve the disadvantaged people outside its walls, the ministry influences its volunteers, as well.
“Most of our staff have been involved in some way, and many currently serve as mentors in the schools,” Bowman says. “We also make sure the Circles opportunities are presented in student ministries, women’s ministries, and other life-stage ministries throughout the church. We want these programs integrated into every area.”
Southland will launch a second campus in Danville, Kentucky, this year and plans to include Circles of Influence outreach activities based on that community’s needs.
“The programs in Danville may be different, but the emphasis will be the same,” Bowman says. “We’re transitioning to a mind-set that defines volunteering beyond teaching Sunday school or leading worship on Sunday morning. Those things are important, but we can’t neglect our city; to invest in the community where you live and work takes service to a whole new level.”
Jennifer Taylor, one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, lives in Antioch, Tennessee. Read more about Circles of Influence at www.southlandchristian.org or www.refugeministriesky.org.