Caring is not a spectator sport

Learn from five churches that exhibit creative ways to illustrate a “caring” community.

Lilya Wagner, EdD, CFRE, is director of Philanthropic Service for Institutions, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher-mathematician, wrote in his autobiography: “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life.” The first two were a longing for a love and a search for knowledge. The third was “unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” He added, “Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart.”1

These same echoes also reach our ears in such a stream and with such intensity that, perhaps in the din of life, we have lost our capacity to hear them. We who are not crying in pain perhaps have become so desensitized to the sensory and emotional stimuli that we suffer from something like boilermaker’s deafness—a condition common among workers exposed to intense noises of the trade before ear protection was used. They became deaf to certain frequencies because the corresponding receptors in their ears had been destroyed.

If Russell, an agnostic, could have such sensitivity to the pain of this world, should not Christian ears and hearts be even more receptive and not suffer from boilermaker’s deafness? Yet sometimes it seems this is a prevalent condition, if only because we do not know what to do about those echoes of cries of pain.

The faceless statistics are often overwhelming and disturbing. We may feel compelled to do something but instead succumb to compassion fatigue. Yet we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines, oblivious to the suf­fering, deprivation, and desperation around us. We cannot afford to be apathetic just because those faceless statistics are far away and impersonal. We cannot afford to remain insensitive because we have moral, humanitarian, and Christian obligations to fulfill.

But most important, we cannot afford to remain uninvolved because Jesus showed us that caring is not a spectator sport. Jesus said, “ ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Matt. 25:40, NIV).

Fortunately, there are a significant number of Adventist churches follow­ing Jesus’ injunction of caring for the “least of these,” and their experiences and examples are both inspirational and instructional. These churches, pastors, and members believe in building bridges, in going into the highways and byways of life in the areas where many fear to tread, and bringing in the “least of these” by programs that truly exemplify the meaning of caring. They are not mere spectators. They are players in the game of eternal life and are bringing some of heaven into reality right here on earth in their own communities. We shall consider four moving stories of churches that care.

The caring Bereans

The Atlanta Berean Church engages in numerous community-based activi­ties, including the Berean Outreach Ministry Center, founded during the ministry of senior pastor Dr. Carlton P. Byrd. This Atlanta church fosters an evangelistic culture that includes com­munity initiatives on a consistent basis.

The Berean Outreach Ministry Center provides daily services to neighborhood residents through a state-of-the-art youth activity center, barbershop, beauty salon, health and fitness center, juice bar, clothes closet, and food pantry that services more than 1,000 people on its weekly food distribution day. The ministry of the food pantry was recognized in an ABC television documentary entitled Help the Hungry.

Given this growing ministry aware­ness, a gentleman in the Atlanta community donated an eight-unit apartment complex to the church designated for a women’s and chil­dren’s shelter. Additionally, in January 2009, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded a $5.2 million grant to the Atlanta Berean Church, and the church subsequently constructed a 50-apartment senior citizens’ housing facility for church and community senior adults alike, enabling residents to live in a safe, Christian environment at affordable pricing.

These and other seeker-sensitive community initiatives, coupled with biannual public evangelistic campaigns, greatly contributed to the overall evan­gelistic growth of the Atlanta Berean Church as 1,817 persons were baptized and became Seventh-day Adventist Christians during this five-and-a-half­year period. Presently, Dr. Byrd serves as the senior pastor of the Oakwood University Church in Huntsville, Alabama, and as speaker and director for Breath of Life Television Ministries. The community-based ministry of the Atlanta Berean Church continues under the current leadership of its senior pastor, Fredrick Russell.

Working the inner city

The Shiloh Adventist Church is located in the inner city of Little Rock, Arkansas—an area that is rife with crime, poverty, and drugs. Sounds of police car and ambulance sirens and of gunshots, along with the sight of boarded-up houses, are commonplace. This leaves many people feeling hope­less. In this setting, Shiloh has been identified by city officials as the flag­ship church in the area because of its exemplary involvement in community service.

Two pivotal community service events were the 2011 and 2012 block parties. Both events had approximately 27 booths, including community and church vendors, with 350 to 400 attendees. In addition, a neighborhood association held monthly meetings at the church last year. To complement Shiloh’s long-standing reputation, Pastor James Roberts has devised a plan to have a stronger spiritual presence through evangelism. Every quarter Shiloh hosts Creation Health cooking classes, a prophecy seminar, and sermons focused on teaching the fundamental beliefs of the faith.

Church members participate in ways that reach community members. Alfred Hampton, one of the elders, heads a small group that delivers gifts and literature to neighborhood homes every third Sabbath. They give out items such as pens, lotion, and bath soap. Approximately 75 to 100 people are served. Deacon Ronnie M. Woolfolk holds a Bible class at his home twice a month. He gives gifts to St. Francis House, a residential facility that houses homeless veterans. Woolfolk says gifts “make them aware of our presence in the community.” James Davies leads a small group called United for the Master. Once a month, the group dis­tributes laundry bags with various laundry items, Adventist books, and health magazines. The group visits Laundromats, college and university campuses, a domestic violence center, and a barber shop. Their ministry has served at least 700 people in the past year. Davies says their ministry has “brought us closer as a group and has been a blessing.”

Debra Brown has a book ministry; she buys Christian books and donates them to people who seek good read­ing. She also heads a free telephone prayer group called Fruit of the Spirit Network.2 The group meets Sunday mornings to “encourage, fellowship, share devotions, and witness.” Vouncile Harris uses her passion for children to tell children’s stories on Sabbath. She also is a professional storyteller who speaks at public schools, churches, and community events. Her desire is to talk “to people about Christ and our church.”

Thus, the Shiloh church has gone beyond being the brick church whose members worship on Saturday to slowly becoming friends of the community and truly exemplifying the principle that caring is not a spectator sport.

The innovative and the traditional

Two churches in South Chicago, under the leadership of Pastor Gordon Fraser, have found innovative as well as traditional ways to make a difference in their respective communities. The Beverly Hills and Goshen churches conducted a community analysis that revealed that the primary needs were health and employment. Following the assessment, both churches wanted to intervene and better their communities. The Beverly Hills church carried out an Overcoming Obesity parade, and the Goshen church held a job fair.

Instead of regular Sabbath services, the Beverly Hills church took to the streets with police and fire truck escorts, along with a Pathfinder marching band, an antique car, a truck bearing a ban­ner, and church members with banners and invitations, inviting the community to the church for nutrition information, blood pressure checks, healthy food, health talks about overcoming obesity, live music, programs for the children, and so much more. The entire event was held outside in the church parking lot. People from the community who had never before set their foot on the church grounds came to the event.

The Goshen church is planning one of the largest career fairs sponsored by any church in the community. Each employer will come to the career fair with at least two jobs ready to employ any qualified candidate. On that day, church members will help with résumé revision, distribute clothing for the “dress for success” class, and coach attendees for meeting prospective employers.

The community assessment showed that one of Chicago’s big­gest problems contributing to youth violence is children left alone at home. The Goshen church believes that a community-based facility will keep young people safe and off the streets, so the church plans to purchase a build­ing and establish such a center that will also include pick-up and drop-off services for added safety.

The Straford Memorial Church is also in South Chicago, an area notori­ous for poverty and crime. For the last three summers this church has been involved in what they call the annual back to school Community Health Fair. This is one of their annual outreach events that begins the day before with a parade through the com­munity. Members of the community are invited to participate in a day-long fair where they receive free school supplies such as notebooks, paper, pens, and book bags. In addition, the fair provides free physicals and health immunizations. The church members teach kids and their parents about the eight laws of health and provide nutri­tious vegetarian treats, watermelon, and snow cones, along with other food and snacks.

An added feature is a small pet­ting zoo, which is always a big draw for many of the young people in the community who have never seen some of the animals before. They also give away free bicycles, T-shirts, and other prizes; conduct free blood pressure and cholesterol screenings for adults; give free back-to-school haircuts; and highlight the various ministries of the church by asking each leader to set up a booth. During the fair, the family life leader was able to build a relationship with a group of single mothers, which resulted in their meeting weekly at the church to seek God’s guidance and support.

This ministry impacted church members as well as the pastor. One member shared what had taken place during the registration process. While registering the kids, she asked them to give her their addresses and, to her surprise, many of the children had no clue what she was talking about. This troubled the church member to the point of tears. Ultimately, it showed everyone just how great the need is in their own community.

Another outreach is community movie night. They set up a giant screen in the church parking lot; showed a family oriented film; and gave away free prizes, popcorn, and soda. On a regular basis they gather the contact information of the people who attend so that they can be contacted about future events at the church. Over the last two years, they have been able to meet and establish contact with more than 300 people in the community. Most of these contacts were made through the Community Services biweekly food and clothes distribution program.

The Straford Church remains proac­tive and innovative. Each year they try to improve their outreach ministry by adding new dimensions to events and finding innovative ways to introduce members of the community to Christ.

Toward economic empowerment

The Word of Life Adventist Church, under the leadership of Pastor Fred Batten, provides many services to the Frayser community in the Memphis, Tennessee, area. In 2013, it added free tax preparation to their outreach pro­grams. Pastor Batten saw a need, and although it took three years to make it a reality, they opened a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program in partnership with the United Way in February 2013.

The volunteers have given more than 420 hours of their personal time. Appropriate training allowed for qualified staffing and knowledge to prepare tax returns. Being able to provide this service to the community has been a very rewarding experi­ence for everyone. Sixty-nine families received assistance, and the result was approximately $24,000 of economic empowerment returned to low-income families. But the recipients of the services weren’t the only ones who benefitted. In the process of helping others, the volunteers learned a very marketable skill that will be helpful for themselves as well.

The Word of Life Church applied for a federal grant under the VITA program for 2013. They want to partner directly with the Internal Revenue Service to one day make this outreach program a gateway to helping teach fellow brothers and sisters about economic empowerment as another way to help in their community.

This church also has a young adult ministry program, providing lunch for children and families at St. Jude Hospital and Ronald McDonald House, serving about 150 people and perform­ing a puppet show for children. They hold an annual Back-2-Skool block party and a Basketball Extravaganza. The family life ministry includes Shoes for School gift cards for 20 students, school food baskets for 25 families, and an adult financial seminar Vacation Bible School program. Recently, the church adopted the Westside Elementary School B.E.S.M.A.R.T. Summer Camp along with former WNBA player Grace Daley. Other programs include the Good Stuff Giveaway through which Christmas toys are distributed, grief seminars, and prison ministries.

“You did it for Me”

These churches, with their pastors and members, ensure that caring goes beyond being a spectator sport. They are involved in ways that meet proven needs. They reach way beyond the walls of their own church buildings, both real walls and behavioral walls that sometimes separate the “insiders” from the outside world. They will, no doubt, hear Jesus Himself say, “When you did this to the least of these of My children, you did it for Me.” Their active caring is an example and inspiration to us all.


1 Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (New York: Routledge, 2000), 240, 241, 257, quoted in “The Three Passions of Bertrand Russell: Love, Truth, and Justice, Lapidarium, accessed April 16, 2014, the-three-passions-of-bertrand-russell-love.

2 To join this prayer group Sunday mornings at 7:00 A.M. CDT, call +1-805-399-1000 and use code 397543#.

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Lilya Wagner, EdD, CFRE, is director of Philanthropic Service for Institutions, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

June 2014

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