At New Community United Methodist Church in Oakhurst, we jokingly talk about writing a new daytime drama series called “As the Dumpster Turns.” The dumpster is where we toss not only our trash, but also donations to our thrift store that are broken or too shabby to sell in the store. Despite the sign on the dumpster prohibiting folks from getting in it, there are always people climbing into it to retrieve what we have deemed beyond repair. It is a fitting metaphor for the people we serve through our various mission ministries. These are folks whom our culture has often deemed beyond repair. But we know that when we love one another the way Jesus loves us, lives can be transformed.
“I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.” The center piece of our mission projects is our weekly community meal. It began as a casual conversation during a car ride home from another church that had a community meal. Wondering why we couldn’t do a meal like that turned into let’s just do it. The early days of New Community were marked by a lack of institutional structure and to borrow a phrase from Tom Bandy and Bill Easum, “heartbursts.” We might not be using the phrase exactly as they meant it, but whenever one or two people felt passionate about starting a particular ministry (the heartburst), they were given free rein to just do it. No votes, no “ we’ve never done that before,” just do it. The meal quickly expanded from a once a month event to every Wednesday. Two other churches in town take a Wednesday night, and New Community has teams that take two of the Wednesdays. In months where there is a fifth Wednesday, the youth prepare the meal. The meal is open to the entire community and serves as a place for all of the community, not just low-income or homeless, to share a meal and our stories. Meals are simple but hearty, often using food bank commodities. The budget for this ministry is under a $1,000.
“I was homeless and you gave me a room.” Four years ago many of the churches in town came together in response to the death from exposure of one of the town’s homeless men. The initial discussions seemed somewhat hopeless at times. No one could agree about how to best start sheltering, and some wouldn’t even come to the table because of New Community’s stance on full inclusion or the fact that the pastor was a woman. Finally, Pastor Kelley O’Connor said, “can’t we just agree to love?” The five churches that formed Full Circle Family Outreach agreed to do just that, and to let each church figure out what that meant to them. But every church serves dinner and breakfast, and provides a place to sleep during the winter months. New Community took Wednesday evenings to dovetail with our community meal.
“I was shivering and you gave me clothes.” While our thrift store funds many of our ministries, it also is a ministry. The clothing we receive as donations not only goes into the store, but also is given away. If anyone in town is in need, they can come to the store to pick out clothing or blankets. Some of the clothing goes to Seventh Generation, a non-profit that sends clothing all over the world. In addition, clothes are taken to Calwa United Methodist Church for their monthly clothing giveaways.
“I was in prison and you came to me.” And then there is the prison ministry clothing. When a prisoner is released, they often have no clothing except the prison issue sweats or flimsy jumpsuit. Our prison ministry puts together large bins of clothing from our thrift store and takes them to the nearby prisons in the valley.
One other “heartburst” that happened at New Community came from Gridley United Methodist Church. Gridley had a program of backpacks for children in crisis. The backpacks are packed with items like toiletries, school supplies and comforting toys. They are given to Madera County Social Services to give to children who are experiencing any kind of crisis. Since the program was started at New Community, 1,522 backpacks have been handed out.
As a pastor only recently appointed to New Community, I feel blessed to step into a church with so many active mission ministries. When you read through the list, it might seem like we are a much larger church than we are. Each of these ministries runs through the efforts of a small number of folks who feel passionately about using their gifts to be the active presence of God. Empowering our folks to act on their “heartbursts” is a privilege.
How do we as church leaders empower our members to act on their “heartbursts”? How do we get in the way?