I’m an elder in my church. All that means is that I and a few other elders try to care for the people in our congregation and lead the doing of things that try to make our church a light in its neighborhood. It’s all straight uphill, as we serve a blighted, impoverished part of Indianapolis, and we have limited resources.
While a few of our elders have been part of West Park Christian Church for decades, a few of us are relative newcomers. I’ve been a part of the church for only about four years now, and an elder since last year. Our monthly elder’s meetings and our fly-by discussions on Sunday mornings hadn’t let us bind together as a team. So our pastor arranged for us to spend a weekend away. We all piled into the church van on a recent Friday night for the drive down to Camp Allendale near tiny Trafalgar.
We spent our weekend in this lodge getting to know each other better, coming together as a team, studying and discussing, praying and dreaming about the future.
Gray skies and light rain couldn’t cover the land’s beauty. I took my camera out on short walks when we took our infrequent breaks. But we had work to do; the weather outside mattered little to that.
Sometimes I’m amazed our church gets anything done. We’re mighty disorganized, and only a tiny handful of us are doing most of the heavy lifting. And the overwhelming majority of our members have deep need and little to give. Our task is to help them find resources to meet their needs, to stand firmly on their own with God’s help — and then help them find a life of service to God in which they begin to give back. This creates such value and meaning in these individual lives, but also makes the whole congregation more able to serve in our neighborhood, to let the light of love shine brighter and brighter.
But there is real crisis among our congregation. I’m seeing how complex and intertwined the problems of poverty are: poor life skills, addictions to drugs and alcohol, undereducation and limited employment opportunities, psychological and emotional damage from abuse and neglect. For many, it’s a long road to reaching life stability, let alone being able to give and serve.
We recently opened an infant and toddler daycare. The idea is to have a very low-cost place for the single moms to leave their kids so they can work. Without it, they end up stuck on assistance and never get off. But assistance doesn’t really cover expenses, and so the moms end up living with a parade of boyfriends and roommates to share the financial load. They end up moving constantly as one situation falls through and they find or make another. But because addiction is a pervasive problem in our neighborhood, even a mom who’s clean is likely to end up involved with a user, which creates chaos in the family. So we hope to provide a safe place for the children, allowing the moms to find jobs and hopefully make more money, helping them avoid the desperate living situations. Our hope is to create a generation of children in our neighborhood that knows basic stability.
Getting it off the ground has been shockingly difficult. We thought we’d be overrun with children immediately, but six months in we care for just three babies.
Sometimes the problem is that the mother lacks the life skills to get CCDF, a program in which government pays the bulk of child care expenses. Another problem is that our neighborhood has a large and growing Hispanic population, and they steer clear of churches that don’t speak Spanish.
But the biggest hurdle, we are starting to think, is a catch 22: moms need a job to get money to pay the portion of our fee that CCDF doesn’t cover, but can’t get that job until they put their kids with us. We are talking about letting moms place their kids with us for free for 3 or 4 months while they wait for CCDF to take hold and while they look for work. It will spike our cash burn rate, but we are starting to think we have no choice if we want this to happen.
But practical matters aside, we elders still needed to come closer together as people, to form a strong and solid team. I think we began to accomplish that over this weekend. We saw each other’s hearts and our practical strengths and weaknesses. The more we work together in harmony, the stronger our church will be in the programs it takes on, and the stronger the church will be spiritually.
We’re all busy people. (For example, the woman at the end of the photo above is also the president of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, and runs the local community center.) It was hard to take a full weekend away. But this critical time investment feels like it will pay off.