Since coming to the Rhode Island Conference in July, I have traveled around the state, visiting with RICUCC churches, meeting folks and sometimes preaching the Word. Honestly, this is my favorite part of this call as Rhode Island’s Transitional Conference Minister. And of course, I spend a good deal of time talking about our new Together, As One Conference because this is also work that I am passionate about. That we are in the midst of birthing a new conference is both exciting and daunting work but it is work that is well worth all of the hours that many folks are pouring into it.
One of the most frequent questions that I get from folks who are curious about our joining with Connecticut and Massachusetts is “Why?” And my answer is always the same one you will hear from all of us who are working to make this new conference a reality: “We seek to be a conference in which local churches make disciples, live the love and justice of Jesus, embrace adaptive change, and build covenant partnerships with those who work for the common good.”
We are putting into place structures and processes to accomplish this vision at the conference level, but the real dream is for this to become the way that all our churches do church in the years to come. And I know that it is possible because on one of my visits to a Rhode Island church, I saw this vision in action at the Riverside Congregational Church in Riverside, RI.
When the Rev. David Hammett came to Riverside Church 5 ½ years ago, the church was in the midst of very hard times. There had been Sundays when there were as few as 9 people in worship and the church's reserve funds were in rapid decline. An interim pastor had urged the congregation to prepare for closing the church. Unable to afford a full time pastor, the church offered Rev. Hammett a part time call. He and his congregation had a choice to make: go on as they had been and face a pretty quick death or embrace adaptive change. They held a “round table” conversation (one of many to come) and openly shared their concerns and dreams. A desire to reach out to the local community quickly rose to the top of the list of things they thought God might be calling them to do. They began by taking a fresh look at the community that surrounded their church. It was a community where many people were struggling every day to put food on the table. Where healthy food was way too expensive and the food that they could afford was full of stuff that doctors tell us to ‘limit’ in our diets. So, the Riverside congregation chose to start serving breakfast on Sundays before worship. That led to lunch for everyone after worship as well.
As the church's neighbors came to the breakfast in increasing numbers, the congregation began to embrace the idea that food was their ministry. Soon, an opportunity presented itself when they were approached by an area food rescue program and asked to host a donation-based market, one where people could shop for affordable food, while giving back to help cover costs and support the hosting church. The congregation chose to form a covenant partnership with the organization which provided the church with most of the equipment they needed to open a collection of shops in the church basement where many of the once-used Sunday school classrooms had become the storage space for junk. Cleaning out the junk, they sought to fill the space with food, lots of food. In addition to food, personal care items were resourced as well as over-the counter medications. These shops became companions to the church's decades-long “Cobweb” thrift store ministry. The food rescue organization they worked with had formed partnerships with food distribution companies and retail stores, receiving and redistributing their no longer needed or unwanted products, including tons of food they were disposing of due to expiring “use by” dates. Riverside was able to fill their shops with not only the staples that most food pantries have, but also a steady supply of meats and frequently, eggs and dairy products. They also could sell fresh fruits and vegetables. They have an entire room with 4 huge 15 cubic foot chest freezers full of meat: chicken, beef, and pork. They have a medicine cabinet room where, when available, donations from a drug store chain are available for purchase. Since they have a strong understanding that people with very little money still have dignity and want to be treated as valued members of the community, they request that shoppers make donations, to “pay” for the things they receive. And most of the people who shop there pay for their food – at drastically deep discounts, but pay they do. I saw a package of frozen chicken that would have cost me at least $12 in another store but was only $1 at Riverside. Of course, there are those who struggle to come up with even a few dollars to shop, so volunteers are trained to recognize when this may be the case and to respond with generosity, offering extra food and frequently, a free pass. When someone is in a “food crisis”, the shops immediately become a free pantry. Usually, a couple of families each week are helped in this way.
Now, that would have been enough. But there is more. All of the people who were working in the shops volunteer their time. These are the folks who shop there also coming to work there because they feel the value of being a part of making God’s love and justice real. They find joy in serving an underserved population. As I toured the shops on that Thursday morning, I met volunteers who were members of the congregation but many others who were not. The Moderator of the church was the boss who set all the prices and her favorite price is $1. There was a crew of 4 men upstairs in the kitchen, three of whom were not members of the church, shelling and freezing clams for a Lenten Fridays “clam shack” fundraiser. Downstairs, there were sales people ready to help customers find what they needed. They handed me a reusable grocery bag and invited me to shop. I at first declined, because I can never find gluten free items at a food pantry. But this was not an ordinary food pantry. I was escorted to an entire wall of gluten free items, many things that I’d never found at Stop & Shop or Shaws. I filled my bag to the brim.
Pastor Dave told me that the partnership with the food rescue organization they worked with for nearly 3 years eventually came to an end because the church “no longer fit their business model,” which meant the organization felt too much was being given away for free. The organization had been receiving 90% of what was raised in the shops and the church's generosity was cutting into their bottom line. At the end of December, the organization arrived and took all their equipment – shelving, freezers, refrigerators, all gone.
That might have been the end of this grand experiment. However, unwilling to accept defeat, indeed, seizing this as an opportunity for a new beginning, the church let it be known in the neighborhood that they needed all of the equipment that had been taken away and it showed up. Donations of shelves and freezers starting arriving and before long, they were in business again. God had answered their prayers with the help of people who saw the real value of this ministry and stepped up to solve the problem. The shops were reorganized and named “Lighthouse Shops.” Now, the church was free to be as generous with their neighbors as they wanted. The outside pressure for profit was gone and the operation could be scaled to better suit the needs of the community and the church. The church remains thankful for 3 years of learning that made it possible in many ways to make this big step. And the neighbors are happily shopping, having their needs met and the church is being blessed.
Now, here’s the best part. There are now 40 – 60 people in worship on a Sunday. They might not all be members or inclined to join the church, but Pastor Dave doesn’t worry about that because he has embraced the fact that when you make disciples for Jesus, sometimes they don’t officially join. They just show up. The church is not getting rich but they are able to support a ministry which in turn, supports the church. They are able to participate in a circle of love that just goes on and on. This is a church that knows how to make disciples of Jesus who make God’s love and justice real by embracing adaptive change and establishing covenant partnerships. This is what the Together, As One Conference is all about.
(Read the Together As One Vision Statement)
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