For trailer park ministry, God’s love is double-wide
“But I didn’t realize it was going to be here in Georgetown and that I was going to live in my house and not have to run around the backwoods in a loincloth,” he says with a laugh.
Instead, he wears jeans and a blue knit shirt as he works in a converted double-wide trailer known as the Riverside Resource Center, launched as an outreach of the Georgetown Church of Christ.
Holland’s mission field is a trailer park.
“Adios! Hasta luego! Be nice!” the former children’s minister for the Georgetown church calls out to children as they finish their homework in the center’s computer lab. Most of the 350 residents of the Riverside community, a suburb of Austin, are Hispanic. A construction boom in the past decade brought many of them here, but now jobs are hard to find — even in recession-resistant Texas.
Holland and his wife of five years, Sheila, invite the families who live here to their home, outside the trailer park, and spend hours getting to know them. On Sundays, they gather in the community center for Bible study.
Sometimes the work gets messy, Holland said. Recently, when the property’s management announced an $18-per-month rent increase, some residents blamed the community center. Finances are a concern for most, and he knows of individuals here that struggle with alcoholism or physical abuse — as victims and perpetrators.
“But they are the people you would see Jesus go to first,” Holland says.
‘INNER CITY’ IS EVERYWHERE
The Georgetown church isn’t the only middle-class congregation that has found ways to serve the low-income communities at its doorsteps.
In Lubbock, Texas, the Vandelia Church of Christ sponsors an outreach to an economically challenged community near its building, said former member A.C. Oliver. Appropriately enough, the ministry is called “Across the Street.”
In 2008, the Remmel Church of Christ in Newport, Ark., launched a ministry focused on reaching a neighborhood members previously feared, said Anthony Wood.
Wood, an evangelist for River City Ministry, an inner-city work in North Little Rock, Ark., and his wife, Lisa, helped the Remmel church plant a congregation in the neighborhood.
The church worships in a housing project community center. At least 16 baptisms have resulted from the work, Wood said.
In addition to saving souls, the ministry has energized previously inactive members of the Remmel church, elder David Bowman said.
Wood added that the Remmel church has learned “that ‘inner city’ is no longer a geographic phenomenon, but rather a culture found even in small towns.”
‘GOD OPENED DOORS’
In Georgetown, the Riverside Resource Center had its genesis in an offhand comment Holland made during a fall festival.
Four years ago, the 500-member Georgetown church launched the festival as a community outreach, said church elder Bill Painter. Leaders of the 118-year-old congregation were looking for ways to help the church be more outward-focused, Painter said.
A school in a low-income neighborhood was the original site, but school district officials raised concerns about a church using public property, Painter said. The congregation had to look elsewhere.
The school’s principal recommended the Riverside community for the event. After the festival, Holland delivered Thanksgiving meals to families in the trailer park.
“I was talking to the manager in the office and I said, ‘You need a community center out here,’” Holland said. “And two days later, I had an e-mail saying, ‘We’d like to talk to you about the community center.’”
Holland and representatives of the Colorado-based management company discussed plans for a community center that would help Riverside residents complete courses in English as a Second Language and earn high school equivalency diplomas.
“I want to tell you something straight up,” he told the company’s owner. “We’re looking for a place to plant a church. … (The company) said, ‘OK, so what can you do?’”
Holland posed that same question to his elders when he returned to Georgetown. Painter acknowledged that his first reaction wasn’t “Boy, this is where God really wants us to go. Let’s do it.”
Instead, he recalled thinking, “How are we going to pay for all of this? We didn’t have it in the budget. It’s a down economy.”
After discussion and prayer, the elders decided to invest in the project. The property’s management purchased the double-wide trailer at an auction, brought it to the park and hooked it to power and sewer lines.
The trailer’s previous owner had hoarded animals inside, Painter said, “and it was something awful. You had to hold your breath to be inside it.”
Members of the church and the community weren’t discouraged. They gutted the trailer and installed new sheet rock, insulation and windows, paid for by the management company.
The Georgetown church contributed about $22,000 toward the reconstruction, Painter said, and got some of that money back through the Bell Trust, a charitable foundation associated with Churches of Christ.
“The way God opened doors for this was just amazing,” Holland said.
The resource center gives the middle-class Georgetown church the chance to serve a low-income community in its backyard, Painter said. Church members — especially seniors — volunteer at the center.
“Riverside is a big part of the conversation within the church,” Painter said. “That’s exciting.”
‘IT MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD INSIDE’
After locking the resource center for the evening, Holland leaves the trailer park and drives his pickup to the Georgetown church building.
There, among the pristine pews of the church’s vaulted auditorium, he meets his wife and Enrique and Laura Najera — a Spanish-speaking couple he recruited to help him with the Riverside ministry.
Enrique Najera, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, studied at Austin Graduate School of Theology, associated with Churches of Christ. He preaches for the small congregation that meets at the resource center and teaches a weekly theology class.
“Most of the people we are ministering to … have never opened a Bible,” Enrique Najera says.
Eneida Ruiz once told the Najeras she wanted nothing to do with church when they invited her to services at the resource center. But they could pray for her, she told them.
Ruiz allowed her children to attend, however. One day, her oldest son told her, “Mom, you need to go to church. It makes you feel good inside.”
She took her son’s advice, and a few months later, she and her husband, Ivan, were baptized.
After a brief wait, the Ruiz family arrives at the church building along with Gaby Zapata, a neighbor in the Riverside community. The group prays and, moments later, Enrique Najera baptizes Zapata.
When asked why she decided to give her life to Christ, Zapata pauses and fixes her gaze on the church ceiling. Tears flowing, she speaks a few quiet words in Spanish.
“All of the bad stuff is gone,” Laura Najera translates.
The small team working in resource center doesn’t have time to reach every family in Riverside with the Gospel, Enrique Najera says.
“Our greatest need right now is for other mature Christians who can help us, he adds.
He and his coworkers pray “that God will break the chains of sin that bind so many in this community, and that they will see his light shining through us — and accept the gift he offers them.”
THE RIVERSIDE RESOURCE CENTER seeks additional sponsors. For more information, see the website of Jonathan Holland’s ministry, Sight for Sore Eyes Foundation Inc., at www.sfseinc.org.
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franceJanuary, 21 2011