Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Community Corner: God's Outreach in God's Time

Our youth group unloaded boxes of food one at a time and began to knock on doors. "Do you need food?" we asked. Most said yes, a few said no, some doors went unanswered.

Before we had covered even half of the complex, we were out of food. Our last bit wasn't enough for the home we delivered it to. "Is this all there is?" asked the woman of the house. "This isn't enough to feed our family."

"I'm sorry," I replied. "It's all we have."

With downcast eyes, she thanked me anyway and closed the door.

I felt frustrated. I wished I could do more.

Scanning the hills behind the complex, I eyed the affluent homes overlooking the vast farmland surrounding me. I knew where the resources were. I knew more food could be given. And clothing. Hadn't it been given to me?

A year previously, a family member of mine had needed an expensive surgery. My little church, nestled at the base of those hills, a stone's throw away from the farmland all around, had given me enough of their own possessions to raise $2,000 in two days at a yard sale to help offset the cost of that surgery. And they'd given another $1,500 in cash.

If only I could figure out a way to get some of those resources to our hungry neighbors, so close by.

My mind drifted back to my early childhood. Our family of eight spent a year in Canada while my dad finished his college degree. We lived in a minuscule apartment complex called "The Motels". I don't know what the dimensions of our little apartment were, but I do know that the front door, when swung wide, barely cleared the arm of the couch. Beyond the long end of the couch was space for one end table, and then the wall. That's how wide our main living area was.

There was just enough space to fold the couch into the hide-a-bed my parents slept on each night. The hide-a-bed butted up against the dining room table. And there was just enough space to walk between the dining table and the kitchen counter. That's how long our main living space was.

My three brothers slept on a triple bunk which ran the length of one bedroom, and my sister and I shared a double bunk which ran the width of the other bedroom. My baby brother slept in a drawer near the head of my bed, if memory serves. (Feel free to check my facts, Mom.)

We didn't have a bathroom in our home. We walked to the public restroom/laundry room that served all twenty identical units. It was magical and wonderful to my six-year-old self. I didn't mind at all. Tons of kids around, great playground right outside my house, happy college community. Good times.

But college wasn't cheap, even back then, and especially not for a family of eight. One of my mom's saving graces that year was a little room called The Free Table. It wasn't a table anymore, but it had started out as one. The idea was that everyone brought their cast-off clothes to The Free Table, and anyone who needed clothes could go there and get what they needed. I'll never forget playing with brown shoelaces woven through a pair of leather shoes in a bin while I waited for Mom to try to outfit our whole family by digging through the piles of clothing spread around.

I turned my eyes away from the hills around the farm complex and carried my empty box back to the car. As we drove away a few minutes later, a dream was born in my heart. I knew what I'd do. I'd start a Free Table in my own community.

All excited, I told a few of the church leaders about my idea. Wanting to respect our church's structure, they sent me to a committee. The committee was willing to hear my ideas, and they told me to write a proposal, which they would review.

Well, that just took the wind right out of my sails. What? Committee? Proposal? Review? Why couldn't I just gather some donations and give some stuff away? It had worked for the surgery yard sale! Why did it have to be so complicated this time?

I humphed in my belligerent spirit and never wrote the proposal.

Then I got busy. I worked for the church a bit. Then I worked at home a lot. Then I drowned in the personal horror of recovered memories for a while. Then I poured myself into my job even more forcefully. Then I began to have anxiety attacks. Then I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Then I quit all my jobs and began to homeschool my kids.

All through that time, I continued to share with friends about my Free Table idea. But I had two dilemmas. My plate was all full, and we didn't have space at the church to pull it off.

So I waited.

This past summer, I began, as I routinely did, to fill a bag of clothes to send to Goodwill. I usually filled and sent a bag at a time. But for whatever reason, this summer, I filled a bag, and then another, and then another, without ever dropping them off at Goodwill.

It just didn't seem like Goodwill was the place for those bags of clothes.

At the same time, God began to give me a heart for the world outside my house. For a while, that world overwhelmed and horrified me. I knew it was out there, and I knew it could be a pretty stark place. And there was nothing I could do about it.

A couple of months ago, I actually had an anxiety attack about all the suffering in the world. In the midst of my trembly evening, my mentor, Velma, explained The Circle to me. She encouraged me to leave the world in God's hands and focus on the things God had put me in charge of, trusting Him to take care of everyone and everything else.

But she also encouraged me to pray for the world and reminded me that prayer would make a tangible difference. I began praying for the ministries of a couple of my college friends.

I also began to pray for the people at the farming community I'd visited two years before with those boxes of not-enough food. I prayed that God would give me a way to reach out to them through more than just prayer.

Every time I prayed that prayer, those bags of clothes piling up in my bedroom came flitting through my mind.

So finally I asked God, "How am I supposed to get my bags of clothes to those people?"

I got the sense that He was telling me to save those clothes for the Free Table. But I almost dismissed the idea immediately, knowing I was too tired to take on something of that magnitude.

You see, I'd recently spent the majority of my time homeschooling and figuring out how much life I could handle while managing my fibro pain. I'd learned to set good boundaries and watch my body for cues. I knew when it was time to sit down and rest, and I tried to comply, unless I felt particularly rebellious or invincible.

And after figuring all that out, I concluded that my body was just too unreliable to commit to an undertaking as big as organizing a community outreach.

Then my sheltered-from-the-news self was surprised to watch the economy dive into the abyss. Some of my friends needed food. Others were crushed under the weight of their mortgage payments. And Velma was laid off after thirteen years at her very steady job. We met in the morning on a Thursday, just like normal, and then she left for work. Three hours later, she called me on her way back home. Less than a month later, her husband was laid off too.

And the needs in our community came closer and closer to home. It wasn't just the farming communities anymore--those places that could very easily be ignored. Now it was us. Our friends. The people in our church.

So as a church, we began to reach out to one another. To meet each other's basic needs of food and shelter. A family was given a place to stay. Another family's freezer was filled with meat. Medical bills were paid off by anonymous donors.

And God whispered to my heart about my community outreach dream nearly every day.

"But Abba," I argued, "I'm too tired."

And the still, small Voice rumbled a strong and steady reply, "But I'm not."

After repeating this conversation a number of times, I finally took a deep, shuddering breath and said, "Okay, God. I know You're strong and You will sustain me. You just tell me what to do."

There were murmurings among the people of our congregation about wishing they could do something to reach out to the community. It was brought up at a ministry leaders' meeting which Jeff attended. When he arrived home, he said, "They spent about an hour brainstorming about ways to help the community. I almost fielded your Free Table idea, but I decided I'd let you do that."

Jeff's blessing.

The very next day, Wednesday, I went to coffee with Velma, and she brought it up too. "You know, since I'm not working right now, I have a lot of free time. This would be a great time to start your clothes closet you're always talking about. I want to help."

Velma's blessing. And Velma's help!

Everything clicked into place.

I knew God was guiding me, and I knew that all at once and nothing first, the timing was right! I asked Velma if she'd be willing to jump on it right away with me, and she said she'd talk to her husband and see what he thought. Later that day, she called me and said her husband fully supported the idea.

Jeff and Velma both had the same idea for the space we should use on our church property. I'd dismissed that space previously because it was way too small for the big dream in my head. But Jeff took me to the space and showed me it wasn't as small as I thought it was. And he was right. It would be a great place to start.

Of course we couldn't call it the Free Table. No one would know what it was. We decided on the Community Corner. Which isn't actually any less nebulous. So we added a tag line: "Free Food and Clothing."

That same day, still Wednesday, Velma and I went to work immediately, drawing up a proposal to present to the church leaders. We tried to think of everything we could, to answer every possible reason anyone might say no to our idea. We wrote a two-page description of the outreach and our vision, I drew three pages of room schematics, God gave me a great idea for a logo, I designed flyers and posters and road signs, Jeff and I worked up a spreadsheet of expenses, we wandered all over Home Depot pricing building materials, and Velma even got one of her friends from her old job to translate some of our information into the second most widely-used language in our area. It all came together super fast, and by the following Sunday (six days ago), I just had a few more things to tweak before we turned the whole business over to the church leaders for their approval.

Then, at church last Sunday, one of the elders stood up and said, "We've been talking a lot about trying to figure out ways we can reach out to our community. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know."

Oh, how I wriggled with excitement in my seat! I couldn't wait to present our idea!

And this past Tuesday, we got our chance. The proposal was printed, bound, and trundled into the pastor's office, just a few hours before the regularly-scheduled elders meeting.

At 7 pm, as Jeff and I sat chatting in our living room, I suddenly looked at the clock and gasped, "The elders are looking at our proposal right now!" I shot up a prayer, asking God to let the proposal be well-received.

The next morning, I tried to put the proposal out of my mind and busy myself while I waited. I prayed over and over again that I would be okay with whatever the elders decided and whatever changes they wanted to make. I prayed the outreach would be God's, not mine. I prayed the elders would like everything we had planned and wouldn't see a need to wait or delay for any reason.

Finally, at 11:30 am, the phone rang.

"Hi, Becky. This is Sam. I know you wanted to hear back from us right away about your proposal, so I didn't want to keep you waiting."

"Uh-huh," I said nervously.

"Well, the elders are really excited, and we say go for it!"

I nearly dropped the receiver! They said YES! They said yes to EVERYTHING! They didn't want to change a thing about our proposal! They wanted us to proceed right away!

YAY!!!!! :) :) :)

Their only condition was that we establish a committed volunteer base first onaccounta they didn't want us to burn out in six months. Which was very thoughtful of them.

Velma and I have spent the past few days working on a presentation, complete with slides, and we will share our vision with our church tomorrow in an effort to establish that volunteer base.

I'm still floating around, sort of numb. After three years of what seemed like a pipe dream, followed by one whirlwind week of flurried document creation, it's actually entirely possible that the Community Corner will open its doors to our neighbors in just a few short weeks!

And my bags of leftover clothes will finally live out their destiny.

Do you see God's incredible timing in this? If I had tried to implement this outreach when God first put the desire in my heart, it wouldn't have worked. There was no economic abyss that opened so many eyes to the needs right around them. I was too busy to be able to give it my full attention. And it would have died when I spiraled into my personal hell for so many months. It took us three years to figure out that God had already provided space we thought we'd need to acquire. And I would have tried to do it all myself without turning to God to find the strength I most certainly would have needed.

But now, in the short time we've been working on this project, I have already seen God's strength and sustenance in my life. My husband's job is focused entirely on creating spaces that enable ministry on our property. God has brought me up out of the pit and set my feet on a rock, making my footsteps firm. I don't have any of the other jobs that filled up my plate. And the community, because of the economy, is ripe, ripe, ripe. Both for receiving and for giving. I am amazed at the way God has guided this endeavor and worked everything out according to His plan, in His time. I'm giddy excited to be along for this ride, and I can't wait to see what He'll do next!

Please pray with me about the launch of this dynamic outreach. Pray that we get all the volunteers we need by tomorrow, and all the prayer support we need by yesterday. Pray that the renovation of our space goes quickly. Pray that donations pour onto our clothing racks and food shelves. And pray especially that warm clothing, sturdy shoes, cozy blankets and nutritious foods make their way into the hands and homes and hearts of our neighbors in time for them to have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

"Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act."
~Proverbs 3:27

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