After 20 years, St. John’s Episcopal Church in La Porte made a bold decision to push the pause button on its after-school program and spend a year evaluating their effectiveness in meeting the needs of the children and families in the community.
With training and coaching support from EHF, St. John’s set out to meet their surrounding neighbors. Aside from knowing the students they had served in the after-school program, they needed to meet parents, educators, neighboring churches, and other organizations serving the families and children of La Porte.
Stepping out into the community is a challenge that requires training, commitment, and fortitude. EHF offered St. John’s a series of Community Engagement training sessions. These workshops teach congregations how to work collaboratively alongside their neighbors to address issues that affect the well-being of the community.
“My understanding of ministry is now more focused on the individuals in the community,” said Tina Lippincott, director of the newly-formed Children’s and Family Outreach Ministry at St. John’s. “Reaching out to others in the community changes our ways of thinking. We have to go to where people are.”
St. John’s held several community meetings. During those conversations, many neighbors said they feel isolated and don’t have a safety-net for their families. It soon became clear that the isolation was a result of a lack of trust in some systems that provide support to their families. Members of the community expressed their opinion that some groups, prior to these conversations, did not seem interested in becoming too deeply involved in understanding broader community problems.
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
From the Baptismal Convenant
In their willingness to go into the community to listen and to establish relationships, St. John’s was building the trust needed and desired by their community. More importantly, the respect and dignity of inviting neighbors to work with them as partners was making the biggest impact in the community’s willingness to trust one another.
The community’s most-identified challenges were related to economic issues – including having an affordable safe place for kids when they’re not in school. Staying healthy was also a significant challenge, along with affordability of healthcare and health insurance. Neighbors mentioned tutoring, teaching kids to be good citizens, and providing spiritual education as top suggestions for after-school programs.
Because of this deep community engagement work, St. John’s is preparing to re-open its expanded after-school program in the fall of 2017. The program will now be an activity inside the new Holy Healthy Community Program, which includes St. John’s Living Compass Wellness Center. It’s all part of the church’s broader, more community-focused vision for its Children’s and Family Outreach Ministry.
With multiple community partners, schools, neighboring churches, and parents working together, the St. John’s Holy Healthy Community and Wellness Center will:
- Support children with after-school and other diverse child care options in a safe, engaging, and enriching place to learn and develop.
- Provide services to help adults and families access education, fitness classes, nutrition information/food pantry, parenting education, arts enrichment, and health services.
- Provide 20+ certified Community Wellness Advocates to lead Living Compass Wellness Circles on and off the campus.
- Convene other churches and community organizations to facilitate community-serving collaborations.
“Once (the renovated) Stein Missional Community Center opens as our base camp for the Holy Healthy Community and St. John’s Living Compass Wellness Center, it will really change the way the city sees us,” Lippincott said. “They’ll see us as a missional community center, training, facilitating, and deploying to offer help, not only as an after-school program. If they need food, pregnancy and parenting classes, marriage facilitators, or healthcare assistance, they will experience this church as one with a mission to serve all of La Porte.”
For St. John’s, the community engagement goals of building trust, sharing resources, and creating two-way communication with neighbors continues to come together to improve the overall health of La Porte. The congregation’s hope is for these partnerships to evolve into lasting collaborations that share the work, rather than the church having sole responsibility for it.
“The community engagement opened my eyes to the fact that we are called to extend that love beyond the boundaries of the nave,” said Steve Gallington, St. John’s Senior Warden. “Simply, St. John’s was apart from La Porte, now we are part of La Porte. We are moving from us and them, to just us!”