Interview with Don Hamilton

By Brad Dupray

Capital Area Christian Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, has connected with its community in a far deeper way than most churches. In addition to its heavy involvement with community organizations, the church recently raised more than $600,000 in donations from local businesses, organizations, and individuals for construction of a large playground that continues the church’s efforts at making its campus a key part of its community. From the start, the church has worked at using its 53-acre campus to benefit the community and connect people to Christ. Don Hamilton ministers with Capital Area Christian, the only congregation he has served in his 29 years of ministry.

Is it a park or a playground?
We tend to talk about it as the park. There are soccer fields, public restrooms, a 2,800-square-foot public pavilion, a snow-tubing hill, amphitheater, and fitness trail. But the park is primarily defined by the “Adventure Zone” playground because it’s so unusual.

What makes the playground so unusual?
Two things. First, the size of it—the playground covers about an acre. Second, it’s fully special needs accessible. So a child in a wheelchair or who has a walker can play virtually anywhere on the playground, including the slides. There are very few pieces of equipment that a child who is in a wheelchair couldn’t play on. It also includes tactile features for autistic children and others who enjoy that kind of equipment.

Lots of churches have playgrounds—what makes this one different?
It really was a community project. We funded it fully through the community in that we ran a regional campaign to raise the funds to build the whole thing. That included numerous grants from foundations and organizations, and donations of all sizes from businesses and corporations. It included a lot of in-kind gifts from construction companies and people who had the ability to do that kind of thing. There was a lot of fund-raising on an individual and family basis as well.

How did you initially get people in the community on board?
We hired a company called Leathers and Associates that does this type of thing nationally. It came in and oversaw the whole project. At the very first meeting we went to one of the local elementary schools and spent a half day asking the students, “If you could have the greatest playground ever, what would you want on it?” We did the same thing at the United Cerebral Palsy special needs school. Leathers created a design based on the children’s desires. We unveiled that design in a community gathering hosted by the church.

And the word went out from there?
The TV news covered both of those events. We were featured on all three of our local network newscasts, but two of them really adopted the project and followed it for the full two years. Our senator and congressman were both there that night, and that began to get the community involved. Over a period of months we did the engineering work and started major fund-raising. We spoke at every community organization we could get in and sent letters to every business and organization; we developed a master list of hundreds of those and slowly started getting buy-in from everybody.

How much was donated?
The entire project was initially about $607,000, and we’ve got about $625,000 into it now. About 130 organizations and businesses participated in the financing and building of it. We had about 1,400 volunteers, the vast majority of whom were from the community.

How did you get secular businesses and nonprofits to financially support a park built by a
church?
We initially hired a local foundation to handle all finances for the project. All donations were made to this group. Local corporations, businesses, schools, and foundations would make donations in this manner. After completion of the original project, we established a separate 501(c)(3) called Community Care Point, Inc. It has a very broad purpose of helping the community, but one of the specific areas is to oversee the park, including the playground complex, the public restrooms, and public pavilion. The reason we did that is twofold. First, we wanted to expand our community influence. Second, we found there are a number of organizations that support what you’re doing, but they have a simple policy that they won’t write checks to churches.

Are they biased against churches?
A lot of organizations will not write a check to any faith-based organization. They don’t want to get involved in arguments over faith issues. If you take that out of the way, they’re often very supportive—if you live up to their trust. Most of these groups are not approached for funding by churches, but they often have no predisposed negative bias when approached. It is more a matter of handling funds in a manner that works for their organization.

Why is it often so hard for churches to connect with community organizations?
The church just doesn’t have a very good reputation. Some people in the community think the church has a hidden agenda. Some suspect that the church will aggressively proselytize as a part of any project, and this is something most organizations have a policy against. So the church’s love or help is seen as conditional.

How does the church break through the religious barrier to show community involvement?
I think it just takes some time to build trust. The church has to be aggressive about becoming involved in the community and with groups that are not religious or ministry oriented, and the church has to approach it from a servant’s perspective. We’re not coming in to control anything—we just want to help. Whether that’s providing volunteers, usable space on our campus, help with projects—we don’t expect anything in return.

Unfortunately, in many cases the church has earned its reputation.
We’ve had some churches say they wouldn’t get involved in community organizations because the community organization wouldn’t allow them to proselytize. That makes the church look even worse. The organization has all kinds of volunteers who do so just because they care about people. The church comes in and says we won’t help you unless you let us have our agenda. The organization sees Jesus as not having an agenda, and they see the church as not living up to what Jesus taught. So they [the organization/some people] like Jesus, but they don’t like the church.

Does Capital Area Christian Church have an agenda?
We have no hidden agenda. We’re here because we care and because we want to help. That is our agenda. We find ample opportunities to bear witness to our faith without having to make our participation conditional. And as time passes, the more that reputation builds, the more you see that happening.

Do volunteers from the church have a chance to share their faith as part of their community involvement?
We still get plenty of opportunities to share our faith. People and organizations know if we come as a group, that we’re from a church, and we usually end up developing a relationship with that client. They’re hurting, that’s why they’re there. You can say, “Can I pray for you?” No one takes offense at that. People often ask some of the big life questions as our relationship builds. Then, we’re there to share God’s message with them. It’s personal evangelism. You develop a relationship with people; you don’t just dump your message and leave. You care for a person, which opens the door so they can ask the big questions, the tough questions, of life. Honestly, it’s not been an issue for us, because we haven’t made it an issue.

It’s an open door to the local church.
You become known as the church that helps the community. People know us from that. Our whole philosophy is summed up in that we want people to change the way they look at local churches—from negative to positive. We would like to put the church back on the radar, so that people consider the church when thinking about life-changing matters.

Do you have to give something up, in terms of the strength of your message, in order to connect with community leaders?
I can truly say that’s never remotely been an issue. They may not disagree with us from a religious standpoint, but for them, if they allowed us to promote our religious agenda, then they would be obliged to allow any group to promote their agenda. Our purpose is to help people with MS or children with autism, or single moms trying to get a job, a house, and a GED. Whatever it happens to be for them, that’s their purpose and we try to partner with them to help however is needed. They are doing very good things and we want to partner with them. Getting the opportunity to share our message often follows.

What did you do to prepare your church to connect so well with the community?
For two years in a row we did “Faith in Action,” where we would cancel a Sunday service and have everyone in the church go into the community in groups and just help out various organizations with things they needed done; anything from painting schools to cleaning a pet shelter to doing repairs on various group homes. We partnered with a whole gamut of organizations. We were operating under that philosophy for a long, long time. Faith in Action really launched it.

How did you advance your relationship with those organizations?
When we did our first Faith in Action, we prayed that God would give us four or five organizations that we could have a permanent partnership with, and that, in fact, happened. So our church was very much headed in that direction both on our campus and in the community. Some of these organizations then led us to relationships with other organizations. The nonprofit community is pretty well networked—one often knows a lot about what the other is doing—and they try to help each other. They’re often vying for the same dollars and volunteers, but they don’t see it as a competition; everyone is trying to do something good for the community.

How do these organizations bring value beyond what the local church can do?
Here’s an example: In our area there are 7,000 people with MS, so there are 7,000 families dealing with the devastating effects of MS. We feel that Jesus would be ministering to these people. If you have MS, why would you go to a church? What would a church do for you? The Multiple Sclerosis Society can do a lot for MS patients and it is working for a cure. We just want to love people and care for people and help these organizations that are doing things better than the church could ever do it. In the process, we share the love of Christ and change the way people view the church.

It’s what the local church should do.
If even 25 churches in our community were doing what we’re doing, the way people think about church would change and we would get back on the radar screen—especially with young people. We now have a weekly stream of newcomers in our worship services from dozens of connection points created by community service, both on and off our campus.

Brad Dupray is president of Church Development Fund, Fullerton, California.

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