Hands Across the City

Imagine 650 pairs of hands spread out across the city of Grand Rapids!  Last Saturday United Methodists and community volunteers spent a day offering their hands in service through a ReThink event called Hands Across the City, sponsored by United Methodist Metro Ministry of Grand Rapids.  We built a $76,800 playground from scratch and weeded, painted, built tables and benches, and fixed equipment in 11 other city parks and public schools.

  • At Palmer School Alice is weeding a community garden as she shares her passion for helping people help themselves by growing food in public places.
  • At Congress School I am introduced to Shana, a young adult volunteer who is now attending the local community college in large part because of the outreach of Trinity UMC, which is near CongressSchool.  Coming from a highly dysfunctional family, Shana has been mentored by caring adults at the church since 2nd grade and told me that her goal is to become the first African American Supreme Court justice.

How is it possible to get 650 people to give up the most gorgeous Saturday of our brief Michigan summer to help others?  Why weren’t they at the beach, on their boat, or on the golf course?  I am convinced it’s because The United Methodist Church from its very beginning met people where they were and offered faith, hope, and love.  It’s because each new generation is called to rethink how we engage the physical and spiritual needs of our world.  It’s because our faith compels us to reinvent ourselves, step outside of our churches, and make a difference in our community.

  • At Cherry Park, K.C., a neighborhood community organizer, is deeply grateful for the volunteers who are painting her little office building, weeding, and cleaning up a wading pool that is used by 30 neighborhood children every weekday.  “The partnership is the greatest thing,” says K.C.  “The only way to make a difference in our city is by working together.”
  • Jim drove 45 miles fromMuskegon to volunteer a tAberdeenPark, and he brought with him 2 strapping grandsons, his sister-in-law, and her 4 grandchildren.  They are cleaning out a supply closet, picking up trash, painting picnic tables, and touching up playground equipment.

God does not want us to wait until people come to us.  Rather, we are called to take the initiative to reach out to our neighbors where they are.  We offer them God’s love in a very visible way by discovering needs and then working with our urban neighbors to make this city a better place.

  • I’ve never seen a track gutter before, but a group of volunteers at Briggs Park is digging dirt out of the gutter with their bare hands to ensure that when it rains, water flows smoothly through the gutter and keeps the running track dry.  Dave, a young man who just moved to the neighborhood a week ago, cannot believe all the volunteers who are lovingly and meticulously cleaning out a park that is usually trashed.  As he whips out his camera to take numerous pictures of the group, he says, “I know you are not here to gain recognition, but I want you to know how grateful I am for what you are doing.”
  • Lou calls them “angel points.”  A resident in the neighborhood of Lincoln Park, Lou and a few other neighbors “take care of their park” since the City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department has lost 68% of its staff and 40% of its maintenance workers since 2004 because of budget cuts.  Lou, who expresses appreciation for the red-shirted ReThink volunteers, says, “You get angel points for doing nice things.  Our satisfaction is in the doing, not the recognition.”

The people of The United Methodist Church believe that the church is not a building, an idea, or a belief.  The church is God’s people moving out into the community to love, grow, serve, and change the world.  When we take the time to help neighbors in need, build relationships with friends and strangers alike, and work and serve together, we do change the world, one community at a time, one park at a time, one person at a time.

  • The most challenging project of the day is atSweetStreetPark, where 3 bouncy riding toys need to be moved to a safer location because they are constantly being vandalized and are not within sight of watchful parents.  Aided by a backhoe, 7 volunteers with sweat dripping down their faces, move three 500 pound concrete foundation blocks to the new location for these popular toys.
  • At Garfield Park several hundred volunteers build a $76,800 state of the art KaBOOM playground in 5 hours.  The only major project that had been done in this park in the past 20 years was removing the swimming pool.  The playground was designed entirely by children in the neighborhood and, after the cement dries, will be a source of laughter, fun, and endless joy for hundreds of God’s precious little ones.

During the playground build, a Hispanic-Latino man walks through the park with 5 young children under the age of 10.  As the children see what is happening, their eyes grow huge, and they ask, “Can we help?”  Volunteers reluctantly tell the children that they have to be 18 years old to be on the construction site but that they can come back and play on the new playground any time.  “Thank you so much for building this playground for us,” one small child says.  They stay and help set up chairs for the afternoon musical celebration.

All over the world Christians are beginning to understand that faith is a verb.  Love is not true love unless it is more than words.  Love in action is what will transform structures and institutions as well as individual lives.

At the same time, we can do far more together than we can alone.  It is in our United Methodist DNA to intentionally connect with other United Methodist churches in order to be in ministry together.  Unfortunately, we don’t always work very collegially with our sister churches, let alone engage the world by partnering with schools, businesses, non-profit and community organizations, and other denominations and religions.

One of the greatest forces for social change in our world is unleashed when people of faith lead the way in organizing, advocating, and witnessing to God’s inclusive love for all people.  Whatever the issue – education, safety in our cities, health care, immigration reform, urban violence – the power of the Holy Spirit is let loose when we bring people together by building relationships, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and transforming lives, one by one.

The ripple effect of Hands Across the City will be felt all overGrand Rapids.  Several dozen United Methodist Churches cooperated together in a new way and had a great time.  We worked side by side with city and neighborhood organizations, which will open new doors to mission and ministry.  We met new friends, which will facilitate greater connections and cooperation.  And thousands of city residents will be blessed by cleaner, safer, and more beautiful parks, which will instill pride and encourage more people to take more responsibility for their city.

The 1,300 hands across the city were dirty on Saturday.  The hands were scratched, stained with paint, had a few splinters, and were sore and weary.  But they were Christ’s hands, for Christ has no hands but yours and mine to do his work in the world.  Those hands scored a few angel points as well.

How is your congregation rethinking church and reaching out beyond the walls of your building?

Blessings, Laurie

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