As NVC continues to transfer from startup to steady status I’ve done a lot of reflection on the goals that we’ve set over the past year. Certainly not first on the list, but important nonetheless was the goal to become a good neighbor in our community. A few months ago we were blessed with a church property free and clear as a gift from a congregation in Escondido. During our discussion about how God had blessed all parties involved, I felt a burden by our blessing. If we are going to continue to live in this kind of grace we most certainly need to make the most of this gift.
One of our newer members works for the city in the Public Works department, and told me how her department struggles to find volunteers for community service projects. She went on to explain that some of the best crime prevention methods involve keeping streets clean, and neighbors getting to know each other. As a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and the Broken-Window theory, my interest was peaked. It didn’t take long before I had committed our youth and family ministry to participate in these city projects.
This past weekend we had our first event volunteering for the city. A small group of us met up with local neighborhood group leaders and spent the better part of Saturday morning picking up the streets for the Westside neighborhood group in Escondido. It was a great time, and we knocked out a good 6-block area pretty quickly. Our teens and parents had a great attitude, and the other group that had been volunteering there for a few years seemed to be encouraged by others joining in. Aside from a couple of my guys putting the dead rat they found in my trash bag that I had to carry around for a while, it was a great event.
One of the unexpected joys of the morning came when a reporter from the North County Times (San Diego’s 2nd largest newspaper) came out and took pictures of our crew in action. The story was posted later that afternoon, and much to my surprise there was a picture of me, trash bag and grabber in hand, there on the home page of the NC TImes webpage. I’ve always wanted to have my picture in the paper, but I never would have imagined it was for this (I’ve always wanted to be the guy with something witty to say in one of those man-on-the-street interviews). The more I thought about it though, the more I like that my most visible ministry moment to date (that I know of) comes with trash bag in hand.
William temple, The Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII, said that “the church is the only organization that exists for the sake of those outside it”. Which is a message that has resonated with me lately. Another question that has been posed for a while, “would your church be missed if it disappeared from your community?” has been on my mind as well.
I think it’s time the church once again makes itself necessary in the community. My prayer is that we get to a point where the city of Escondido depends on NVC volunteers. This may mean hours of working with a trash-grabber in hand, but if it shows that we as God’s children care bout the restoration of our community here and now, then it’s all worth it. Even putting up with dead rats.
Finally, here are some tips, pointers, and lessons learned from this weekend for any other folks out there looking to get involved with your city:
-Volunteering for city projects are relatively easy to coordinate. Our group simply showed up ready to serve, while the city provided a majority of the organization. If you feel overwhelmed by trying to re-invent the wheel, these types of projects are great.
-We didn’t plan on getting any publicity for this event, but were grateful that others felt it was newsworthy. Our original goal was to allow others to take the credit for a successful cleanup day. Our chance to serve was recognition enough. The upside though is this experience has forced me to ask the question, “how are we known in our community?”
-Start small and work your way up. We invited a limited number of people to participate so that there would plenty for everyone to do, and we still finished early. The last thing we would want is to overload the neighborhood group with potential loafers because of a lack of work. Also, this allows us to spread our workload over several projects so we are not burning through our volunteers. Allowing your volunteers to work well speaks volumes to those you are serving.
-Walk into City Hall. Spend time with the folks who are there because they truly care about their community and partner with their vision. The church is not the only organization that understands the value of the basin and the towel.
-Understand that every little bit makes a difference. In the grand scheme of things on 4 hour session picking up trash is probably not going to completely change the world. However it is often the small things done very well that we find the most inspiring. My prayer is that the members of the community will be motivated to serve, already benefiting from the service of others. Communicate this idea to your volunteers.
-Walk your neighborhood. I had driven past the area we cleaned for months before we committed to serve there. During our planning phase I took a day to walk through the neighborhood and get a feel for the area. Serving others is much more of a priority when you close the gap that separates you from them. In this case, not having a car door between us gave my heart time to open up to the neighborhood.
Hope this helps.
One love, One heart.