Becoming the ‘Go-To’ Church

By Jennifer Johnson

“We were doing missional before it was cool,” says Becky Ahlberg with a smile.

In 2005, Anaheim (California) First Christian Church decided to stay in its rapidly changing neighborhood, connect with its residents, and work strategically to be part of the solution. Since then the church has elevated its community profile and even founded My Safe Harbor, a nonprofit ministry that empowers low-income single moms with relationships, life skills training, and personal development. Through its own relationship building, the church also has strong partnerships with a variety of community agencies, the school district, city government, and the Anaheim Religious Community Council.

The simple act of baking cookies for a Community Service Programs meeting “built credibility and got us a seat at the table,” says Betty Ahlberg, a minister with Anaheim First Christian Church.
The simple act of baking cookies for a Community Service Programs meeting “built credibility and got us a seat at the table,” says Betty Ahlberg, a minister with Anaheim First Christian Church.

“Several years ago we made the decision as a congregation to stay in this neighborhood, despite the rising levels of crime and gang violence,” says Ahlberg, AFCC’s worship minister and executive director of My Safe Harbor.

“We had a debt-free building in the heart of the city and wanted to help.”

First Christian has been in Anaheim since 1894 and knew all the statistics and stereotypes. “Ana-crime” ranks first in teen pregnancy and second in child abuse among Orange County’s cities. More than 60 languages are represented in the local school district, and a staggering 85 percent of the kids receive free or reduced-cost school meals. Forty-three percent of residents were born in another country, and 20 percent hold less than a ninth-grade education.

“To say we didn’t know where to begin is an understatement,” Ahlberg says. “So we sent letters to 75 city agencies asking if they would attend a meeting to give us feedback. And we promised lunch.”

The church prayed 10 people would show up; instead it fed 50, including the principles of all four elementary schools and Anaheim’s director of community services. The ball was rolling.

A task force began investigating demographics and trends and was overwhelmed by the consistent message that emerged.

“Seventy-five percent of gang members come from single-mother homes,” says Ahlberg. “In fact, the vast majority of high school dropouts, teen suicides, and runaways are also kids in these households. It became obvious that so many issues in our community were symptoms of a more foundational problem—a huge number of single mothers with few financial resources, life skills, or support systems. Well, supporting families is what churches do. We thought, let’s get started.”


Small Start, Rapid Results

Sometimes that meant starting small.

“People say they’ll help and then don’t show up,” says Lolly Domond, a case manager and social worker at Community Service Programs Inc. “We wanted to have a meeting with parents from the community and thought refreshments might entice more people to attend. AFCC offered to provide them. We thought they’d buy something—and that would have been fine. Instead, members of the church baked dozens of homemade cookies!”

“Cookies,” Ahlberg laughs. “It’s so simple! But it built credibility and got us a seat at the table.”

This willingness to fill modest, existing needs instead of immediately launching new programs was key.

“People want to make a big impact on day one and have warm fuzzies,” Ahlberg says. “But it’s not about you.”

Anaheim Sporn, neighborhood services superintendent for the city of Anaheim, agrees.

“We don’t experience that humility very often,” she says. “Churches often join the discussion with a predetermined idea of how they’re going to help, whether it’s what the community needs or not. Or they want to do something that makes them feel good. Anaheim First asked what we needed, assessed what they could reasonably provide, and then overdelivered on their commitments. What community agency wouldn’t want to work with a church like that?”

Today, AFCC offers a variety of growing programs and vital services, from VBS to My Safe Harbor, each one designed with feedback from its new connections in the city.

“Every elementary school principal said the biggest need for their kids was enrichment,” Ahlberg says. “Their lives are subsistence, and they have few positive relationships with adults. Just a small investment of time can take them from surviving to thriving.”

Twice a year, 150 members of the church go on the campuses with “Revolution,” a three-hour event offering dozens of booths where kids can play games, make crafts, learn new skills, and interact with safe, caring adults.

The Gang Reduction and Intervention Partnership, or GRIP, is another key relationship. GRIP works with dozens of stakeholders throughout the city to reduce the number of kids joining Anaheim’s gangs. Anaheim First provides complete Thanksgiving meals—including fresh produce and recipes in Spanish—for the family of every fourth- through sixth-grader who achieves targets in school attendance, behavior, and homework completion. Last year, “Project Turkey Leg” distributed 100 meals—this year that will expand to 150.

Even the police recognize AFCC—and Ahlberg—as valuable contributors. “Becky’s the only person from the various religious groups who ever asks how I’m doing,” says interim police chief Raul Quezada. “I know she prays for me and for the position.” She sits on his chief’s advisory board where she chairs a subcommittee and recently sat on the panel to select future police sergeants.

But spiritual growth was, perhaps, the greatest hurdle and the biggest opportunity.

“When it comes to grace and salvation, the church didn’t come to the community with any advantage,” Ahlberg says. “Dysfunction is the same no matter how nice the living room is. Understanding that AFCC folks all make mistakes and bad choices and suffer the consequences was key to approaching others in humility. It’s not ‘those’ people. It’s all of us. Everyone needs Jesus.”


Church, Know Thyself

AFCC continues to build relationships, remain teachable, and take on the often unglamorous tasks that come with making a long-term difference. As a result, Anaheim First has become the “go-to” church for community agencies looking to collaborate.

“You have to take stock of who your church is and what you can do, and then make commitments,” Ahlberg says. “And as you build the relationships, be kind but firm about your nonnegotiables—‘If we’re going to work with you, this is what we can do and this is what we can’t.’”

“We know you’re a church, and we know there are boundaries,” Sporn agrees. “So let’s just talk about it. If both groups respect each other, trust builds in a big way.”

However, just as AFCC doesn’t apologize for being a church, it also doesn’t use task force meetings or community events as opportunities to proselytize.

“We call Becky the church lady,” says Wendy Dallin, family services director for the Anaheim City School District, “because she isn’t the typical church lady. Usually when churches help it’s all about getting people to come to their services. I’m sure Anaheim First enjoys having new members of the community attend on Sunday, but it’s not their agenda.”

Many days, Ahlberg says, the church still struggles to know what it’s doing or what the next best step might be, but never questions the decision to get involved.

“Who better than the church to do this work?” she asks. “We’re all about generational transformation and long-term discipleship. That’s the genius of the church thing—we want to stick with you the rest of your life.

“The good news and the shameful news is, we’re not doing anything we shouldn’t have been doing all along—changing lives through the transformational power of Christ. It’s changing our lives, too.”


Jennifer Johnson, one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania.


Lessons Learned

Becky Ahlberg shares discoveries that have become part of this ministry’s foundation: 

• It’s what do they need, not what do you want to do. Because you’re helping them right?

• Be faithful in little and you’ll get the opportunity to be faithful in much.

• Nothing replaces relationships and trust.

• Not everyone will be excited. Expect pushback from people—often the same people who aren’t getting involved.

• Do things with quality—print materials professionally, serve good food, provide clean and attractive gathering spaces. • Everyone you’re serving is worth the best you can give.

• Take the long view. These problems didn’t develop overnight and won’t be fixed through one activity.

• Don’t turn everything into an evangelism opportunity, but do expect questions about your faith—often from the leaders of other groups.

• Don’t assume you know the motives or the methods of your collaborators. Communicate early and often.

• Go as high as you can. A “no” isn’t personal—look at it as a learning opportunity.

• There are no shortcuts. But it’s worth it.


My Safe Harbor Receives World Magazine Recognition

At press time, My Safe Harbor was the Western regional winner of World magazine’s 2013 Hope Award for Effective Compassion and was in the running with four other regional finalists for a grand prize award of $25,000.

“MSH shows women, many abused by men or despairing over gang-banging children, how they can survive tumultuous waters and ultimately dock with Jesus Christ,” writes World reporter Angela Lu. You can vote through the end of October at

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1 Comment

  1. Tammy Shields
    November 3, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    I am continually amazed at how God has opened doors for our church in our community. We are a small church with a myriad of struggles, yet God has blessed us each time we walk through the doors he has opened. He always has been in the business of using ordinary and imperfect people to accomplish his plans.

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