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Jan21TueNew programs connect community and corps at Essex Community Church. January 21, 2014 by Kristin Ostensen
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Every Tuesday morning, Essex Community Church, Ont., is bustling with people and activity. In the cheerfully decorated church hall, you'll find senior women making wreaths from coloured fabric, young children playing with blocks and crayons, and adults with developmental disabilities having fun with a Nintendo Wii.
Between 25 and 40 people attend SA Connections each week, representing a broad spectrum of ages and backgrounds. Yet no one is ever left out or overlooked.
“Even though there's a variety of people, we've become like a family,” says Tammy Laliberte, a regular at SA Connections. “Whether you're having a bad day or a good day, you can share it, and everyone is so welcoming.”
SA Connections is a new program at the corps, having launched only a year and a half ago. But already it's transforming the church.
Lieutenant Kristen Gray, corps officer, arrived in Essex in 2010, her first appointment as a Salvation Army officer. Taking stock of the current programs, Lieutenant Gray and the ministry team decided to start fresh with an all-new set of programs.
“We came up with two program ideas that would incorporate every demographic of our own congregation and of the community,” says Lieutenant Gray. “We recognized that we couldn't wait for people to come to our doors; we had to go out into the community and meet people where they're at.”
“The sign in front of our church says, 'Sharing the love of Jesus in our community,' so we wanted to really focus on community outreach,” adds Carolyn Barnett, a member of the ministry team.
The first program is SA Connections, a loosely structured program for all ages and stages. Each week, people come to the church to enjoy coffee, snacks and conversation, as well as crafts, puzzles and games. At noon, the group has a meal together and a Bible study follows. Approximately once per month, the group goes on an outing, which in the past has included activities such as apple-picking and candle-making, and they have special events at holidays.
The reasoning behind the program was simple.
“We saw that there was a need for a place for people to come and connect with somebody else and feel a sense of belonging—that's why we called it 'Connections,' ” says Lieutenant Gray.
For Linda Woytaz, the opportunity to meet people and make new friends at SA Connections has been priceless. When she and her husband moved to Essex a few years ago, they knew almost no one and, due to immigration protocols, Woytaz, an American citizen, was not able to gain employment.
“I had worked since I was 13, so not being able to work was having quite an impact on me,” she says. “My husband noticed that I was getting depressed, being at home all the time.”
But then a friend who was involved with cooking meals at SA Connections invited Woytaz to come and volunteer with her, and Woytaz has been a regular ever since.
“It's made me feel like a better person, getting involved and volunteering,” she says. “And getting to know more women in the community has been huge for me because I didn't know a lot of people.”
A Place for Everyone
SA Connections has also provided a safe and friendly place for George Baker, a man with an intellectual disability who attends the program with his personal support worker, Kristen Freeman. Baker and Freeman have been coming to SA Connections since it launched in September 2012.
“When we first started attending, people seemed shy around us, but they soon realized that George is just like everyone else—he's happy and he likes to joke around and laugh,” Freeman says. “We have a great relationship with everyone and we thoroughly enjoy the good times and conversations.”
Over time, Baker's sense of connection to Essex Community Church has only grown.
“He asks me almost every day, 'Is there church today?' ” Freeman says. “We go by number of sleeps and I mark it with a big 'C' on his calendar.”
Though most of the regulars at SA Connections are adults, the program also caters to mothers with young children. Laliberte always brings her niece, Jazlene, three, and sometimes brings other children if she is babysitting. Over the past year and a half, she's noticed that Jazlene has formed a deep bond with an older gentleman at SA Connections.
“She really enjoys playing and talking with him, and that is great because she doesn't have a father figure in her life,” Laliberte says. “That just brings me to tears because this gentleman doesn't know us, other than from coming here, and he's overjoyed to see her, and she feels the same way.
“It shows how much of a community family we've become in the short amount of time that we've had this program.”
While children are welcome at SA Connections, Essex Community Church's second new program focuses exclusively on children. Launched at the same time as SA Connections, Messy Church combines food, music, Bible teaching and crafts to teach children—and their parents—about God.
Ministry team member Jeremy Gilbert believes that parental involvement has played a significant role in the program's success.
“Instead of just dropping their kids off and picking them up later, the parents are seeing first-hand that their kids are enjoying the program,” he says. “Having them involved means we can build relationships with the parents, which is key to building relationships with the kids as well.”
Messy Church is held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on two Thursdays each month and attracts between 25 and 40 participants. The program begins with a meal, followed by a lively contemporary worship time and an interactive Bible study. At the end of the night, the children and their parents go around to different stations, completing activities that tie in with the Bible story. That final component is where Essex puts the “messy” in Messy Church.
“We were doing a paint activity recently and one of our older gentlemen who comes and helps out said, 'Well, they're going to get all messy if they do that,' and I said, 'Yes, that's the whole idea!' ” Lieutenant Gray laughs. “The kids really love that because it's the kind of stuff parents don't necessarily want them to be doing at home because it makes too much of a mess.”
Laliberte always comes to Messy Church with a full car, bringing Jazlene, her daughter, Alisson, six, and some children she babysits. She says the structure of the program makes church accessible to them.
“I love that every craft that we do has a meaning behind it and is explained to the children, because it helps them learn about the Bible without them sitting there for hours,” she says.
The worship time, which usually features worship videos from Hillsong Kids or Praise Kids, is also quite popular with the children.
“Even the toddlers are dancing,” says Barnett. “The kids sing their hearts out and do all the actions—you can see it's reaching them. I've been really impressed by that.”
Woytaz often finds her 10-year-old son, Chandler, singing the songs he learns at Messy Church at home. “Sometimes he even gets so loud that our neighbours hear him,” she laughs.
For families who can't always make it out to church on Sundays, Messy Church is a welcome alternative.
“Messy Church is helping people see church in a different light,” Gilbert says. “It's not just for Sunday morning; you can do it any day during the week.”
The steady and growing attendance at both SA Connections and Messy Church is a testament to the positive impact that the programs are having on participants, and it's leading many to increase their involvement with these programs and The Salvation Army generally.
In addition to cooking for SA Connections, Woytaz is now a cook for Messy Church, and she and her husband pick up food for the Army's food bank.
Woytaz and her family first came to the Army two years ago through the Christmas hamper program. Having been helped at Christmastime, Woytaz is excited to be involved herself, assisting with kettles and toy distribution.
“These programs helped me, and it feels good to give back,” she says.
This past summer, she and Chandler also attended Salvation Army camps.
“Going to the women's camp was wonderful for me,” Woytaz says. “Growing up, my family was quite involved with church, and getting back into it was something I wanted to do.” Essex Community Church is the first church she has connected with in many years.
Lieutenant Gray is excited to see people from SA Connections and Messy Church becoming more involved with the church. A number of parents cook for Messy Church and one mother plans and prepares all of the activities, purchasing supplies and setting things up.
“It's really neat to see the families taking ownership of the program,” Lieutenant Gray says. “They want more than just coming and participating; they want to be a part of it.”
For the ministry team at Essex Community Church, starting two new programs was a leap of faith.
“Change can be hard,” says Barnett, who has been a member of the corps for more than 30 years, “but we're seeing that change is good.”
With the addition of SA Connections and Messy Church, Essex has more than doubled the number of people coming through its doors on a weekly basis. “It's brought new life into our church,” says Lieutenant Gray.
And though these programs differ from a typical Sunday service, Lieutenant Gray sees no divide between what happens at the church on Sundays and what happens during the week.
“The people who come to our programs during the week are just as much a part of our congregation as those who come on Sundays,” she says. “We've worked hard to create a situation where our Sunday congregation is engaged with people from the community, so that we are one church family.”