Start With Relationships

water balloons.jpgWater balloons…library books…pink eye.

It’s hard to imagine what these three phrases could have in common. But missions work connects dots in the most unexpected ways sometimes.

I remember clearly the day a friend drove me to a park located by a school near our church. “Imagine an outdoor VBS here,” she said. “We could do a water theme…Noah, Moses, Jesus…The youth can help run it…We can have water balloons, water games, popsicles…. We could invite the children that live in that apartment complex.” It sounded like a good idea. It just turned out to be a lot more challenging, long-lasting, relationship-building, and neighborhood enriching than we ever imagined.

The challenges came early: we arrived for day one of VBS and found no children…and no source for water. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, we walked through the apartment complex, inviting any children we could find to join us at the park. We boldly asked one family if we could fill up water balloons in their bathroom. The kids were excited to help. Somehow, it all came together.

Five days of VBS at the park. Five days of playing with kids, getting wet with kids, and sharing the Bible with kids.

Wellesley Park Collage.jpg

It would surely have been a memorable event, possibly one that we would repeat the following summer. But we decided not to wait that long. “We’ll be back next Thursday,” we told the kids at the end of the week. And we came back, every Thursday, for many years. Youth and adults had a built-in mid-week mission opportunity – every week. Relationships were built; friendships were formed. We visited regularly with the school counselor to see how we could help with kids who had specific needs. We provided as much support as we could when the mom of three of our regular kids – the mom who had first opened her home to us so we could fill up water balloons – was diagnosed with cancer. We were devastated when she died, and the children went to live with relatives in another state. We formed a “third space” outside of home and school where the neighborhood kids could interact with caring adults.

children library.jpg

Over time, we realized that we could do more. An idea was formed to create a Village Library, a place where the children could check out books during the summer and receive homework help throughout the year. In a storefront near the apartment complex, the Village Library became a reality. The Rotary Club got involved, books were donated, volunteers were trained. The ministry in the park moved indoors, where it still exists today. The original VBS children are grown; some have children of their own. But children continue to come to a safe place in this neighborhood where caring adults are eager to help them learn.

About 10 years after the first summer VBS happened, the friend who first shared that vision with me was driving in the neighborhood. Although it was the middle of the morning on a school day, she saw a teenager walking alone on the sidewalk in the blazing heat. She looked closer, and recognized the girl. She rolled down the window and called out her name. “What are you doing?” she asked. The girl explained that she was walking to the neighborhood county health clinic to get some medicine. She had pink eye. My friend gave her a ride to the clinic and made sure she was okay.

It seems a small thing; but it isn’t. Because it’s about a relationship, and relationships are a big deal. To know another person’s name, to have shared experiences with that person, to have a history of caring – really caring – about that person. That’s a big deal. Especially to a teenager who might have felt pretty lonely that day.

Sometimes community development seems like a lofty ideal – maybe something that is just too hard for a congregation to try to accomplish. But it can be as simple as making a commitment to show up, and continue showing up, in the community. Asset based community development doesn’t have to start with surveys and structure and timelines and training. A committee doesn’t have to research the best practices before you begin. Sometimes you just start with relationships – show up, keep showing up, and see what happens from there.

Prayer Focus: Pray for children who struggle to read “on level” with their peers and for the adults who are committed to work with them.

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