Laboring for Lancaster: The difference a day makes

Church-going Christians know Sunday is a day of worship; but it was a day of “work-ship” for about 200 people who descended on downtown Lancaster, Pa., recently; and indeed, it was a Sunday they will likely never forget.

Labor for Lancaster was the rallying call that summoned to the heart of the city a legion of volunteers with the city at heart. They came August 31 to toil with gladness on the day before Labor Day. They picked up trash and cleaned neighborhoods, weeded and mulched withered park grounds, repaired a baseball diamond, painted, fixed beds and cleaned rooms at a transitional living center, prepared food for families coming out of recent hospital visits, donated blood to the Red Cross, and helped children and families enjoy games, music and making crafts.

This historic mass-undertaking was birthed two years ago in the mind of First UMC Lancaster’s Minister of Christian Discipleship.  “Lancaster has more than 60,000 people living within its city limits,” observed Eddie Cameron, a provisional deacon newly commissioned at the 2014 EPA Annual Conference. “The relocation of younger people, families with lower incomes, and some gentrification has created a … multi-ethnic, multi-generational, diverse socio-economic population …  (and) endless possibilities for the faith community to put flesh to God’s love by serving the city’s residents and infrastructure in positive and meaningful ways.”

While visiting Portland, Ore., in late 2011, he learned about Seasons of Service, a much larger community-wide volunteer outreach effort that had occurred three years earlier and made a profound impact on the city’s overall quality of life and esprit de corps. Cameron brought a video about Portland’s successful experiment to a First Church staff meeting, along with the idea of doing something similar. That idea germinated for two years but resurfaced early this year when the staff brainstormed about “how we could reach beyond our walls to engage and impact the city with the grace, peace and love of God,” Cameron said.

Need for broad collaboration became clear

Church staff met with city and community leaders to identify the most crucial needs to address. But the list was so long that the need for broad collaboration became clear, according to First UMC’s pastor, the Rev. William Lentz, especially with 22 nonprofits and multiple downtown churches available to help.

First UMC held a Labor for Lancaster Summit of local leaders from every sector in May, and it “generated tremendous energy and opportunities to serve the city, even beyond our hopes and dreams,” Cameron recalled. “We knew God was at work to not only impact Lancaster City but also strengthen the faith of our laypeople to serve God locally in this mission adventure.

“Partnerships grew quickly,” he added, “as we felt God leading us from one meeting to the next, always open to the Spirit’s moving and guidance.”

They decided to sponsor a “day of service” on Aug. 31, from 12 to 6 p.m., when volunteers would “work with partners in the city who were already reaching people in need and changing lives.” That included two organizations helping families to overcome homelessness through employment, housing and sustainable lifestyles. It also included helping a hospital provide healthy cooking and eating options to its community, partnering with the city parks department to upgrade a park used by families, and also helping the American Red Cross collect blood donations for people all over the world.

Even the weather cooperated, as a forecasted rainstorm waited till after 7 p.m. to arrive, following a community feast in the park to honor volunteers. During the dinner Cameron overheard volunteers sharing their stories of service with each other. “We even had one volunteer come from just outside of Philly to help because she see saw it on Facebook,” he said. “There was so much energy, excitement, and community engagement that I couldn’t help but smile all day long.”

No doubt there were plenty of grateful smiles to go around that day. Evalina Dombrowski is the new director of Clare House, a transitional living facility for homeless families that relies heavily on church support. After Steve Beeler, who heads First UMC’s mission team and owns a HVAC company, led a team to evaluate the home’s needs, two volunteer crews worked to make repairs and improvements in the facility.

‘Like having Christmas in August’

“Clare House was excited to be involved in what we hope catches on as a way to serve each other as a community throughout the year,” said Dombrowski. “Seeing so many people care so much about our mission and needs was invigorating. Some days our work can be discouraging, when there never seems to be enough  resources, help or time. But Labor for Lancaster was one of those days that uplifts our spirits and encourages us to keep doing our best to serve our fellow Lancaster County citizens. Our residents immediately noticed a difference, and the gratitude they felt was tangible. When you’re homeless, every little thing counts…and Labor for Lancaster was like having Christmas in August.”

The scope and teamwork impressed Bishop Peggy Johnson when she arrived. “It was amazing! So much good outreach happening, and so many community and interfaith partners on board,” she observed. “The planning was superb and the intergenerational involvement was heartwarming.”

Yet, Labor for Lancaster was not intended to be a one-day, do good, feel good service project, according to Cameron, but a “co-relational service ministry” where we help people by getting to know them, hearing their stories, and building relationships that last….”  His project, for which he received one of two  2014 Emerging Ministry Grants from the General Board of Higher Education, relied on social media to help build awareness and support. And both partners and participants are still sharing their reactions on Facebook, as well as their hopes that the crusade will continue.

“Eddie Cameron did a phenomenal job leading the charge and staying committed to the vision of a city that cares for one another,” said Dombrowski. “But my hope is that our neighbors will engage in volunteerism throughout the year and get to know members of the community they would not have otherwise encountered.

“They will realize how much their simple, kind deeds and words make a difference, and they’ll be encouraged to continue offering some of their spare time to causes bigger than their daily lives. I fear we all have a natural tendency to become so wrapped up in our own day-to-day stories that we forget how much it benefits our quality of life to spend time focusing on others.”

By John Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director

Photos courtesy of Labor for Lancaster Facebook page