Spread Shalom

by Annika Bangma, Whitinsville SERVE Host Team Coordinator

In June of 2014, our town of Northbridge (of which Whitinsville is a village) had just voted down a hefty tax override that would give the local public school additional resources. Although there are many reasons why the override failed, a writer in the opinion column of our local newspaper argued, “The major obstacle we continually face is that an “organized” subgroup of voters does not feel the civic need to invest in things that enhance our public school system and town services. This subgroup of voters isn’t the only obstacle, but certainly the major one…. We understand that this subgroup has their own private school in town and does not rely on the public school system to educate their children. But we also know that it is our moral obligation to care for the concerns of others in a community.”

He goes on to suggest, “They also own many great businesses that we enjoy spending our hard earned dollars at. Let’s work diligently to bring this relationship to a win-win for everyone, so those of us who want the town to invest in our children and the public school system don’t have to become an “organized” subgroup of buyers and take our business elsewhere.”

Although many believe that the writer was looking for a scapegoat during a frustrating time in our town, it was not difficult to read between the lines of his insinuation. There is one private school in our town: the Whitinsville Christian School, founded by Pleasant Street Christian Reformed Church. Our church.

Essentially, our church was being accused of not caring for the concerns of others in the community, of not investing in things that enhance our public schools and town services and, in general, neglecting our civic duty. There was a clear misconception in our town about our church and our care for our community and town. We had an image problem on our hands.

Fast-forward to January of 2016. During our very first Host Team meeting, our leaders spent time talking and praying about what we hoped God would do through SERVE. Looking through the list of possible outcomes supplied by Youth Unlimited, we took particular notice of using SERVE to grow “personal relationships in the local community with gospel centeredness” and “Organizational/government relationships [thereby] expanding the congregation’s reach into the community.” Consequently, we made a very intentional decision to partner with as many town services and organizations as possible throughout our week of SERVE.

Our worksites would include the Police Department, the Fire Department, painting fire hydrants for the Northbridge Department of Public Works and the Northbridge Senior Center. We made the decision to use the showers at the Northbridge Public Middle School, instead of using the facilities at Whitinsville Christian, and worked to expand our relationship with the Superintendent of Northbridge Public Schools. In addition, we worked with the Blackstone Heritage Corridor, Inc/National Park Service to tackle one of the biggest jobs they have ever had volunteers take on.

After our week of SERVE was over, the front page of the local paper headlined: “Teens ‘SERVE’ a Week in the Blackstone Valley” – complete with a color photo, and two-part article about the “scores of students” that had been at work in town during SERVE, while being hosted by Pleasant Street. The town manager was quoted as saying “I can’t say enough about these kids. It’s been a real positive experience. All the department heads were positive about it. Oftentimes you hear the negatives; this puts hope back in what youth can do.” In addition, at least four other newspapers ran the photo of the signing of a three-foot-wide check, made out to the National Park Service’s Volunteers in the Parks Program as a symbol of the 3,168 hours of service that the Blackstone Valley received on behalf of SERVE, which the NPS considered to be worth a dollar value of $73,085.76.

Just as our Host Team was starting to regroup to start meeting regularly again to plan 2017, we received a phone call inviting us to an awards night in December, hosted by the Blackstone Heritage Corridor Inc/ NPS.  At the awards, we were blown away to be designated the “Outstanding Special VIP [Volunteers in the Parks] Project Award” for 2016.

On the award certificate, Suzanne Buchanan, NPS Volunteer Coordinator, had scribed “They came to visit, not to stay, but their impact is felt here every day.” Those words, which were written to acknowledge the drastic results that the visiting students had achieved on the worksites, are more true than Suzanne Buchanan will ever fully understand.

The impact of SERVE is not just felt through the physical work the students and leaders accomplished on the various worksites. It is felt every day in the way our church is understood in our community. It has enabled us to continue to grow relationships with town department heads, the Police Chief and the public school system. It has helped us to learn, communicate effectively our motives and efforts, further recognize gaps in the way our town is run and help fill them. It has helped set a trajectory of spreading shalom within our local community, and gaining momentum in other year-round efforts that our church seeks to follow Christ into. It has been the definition of a “win,” and we feel we cannot thank the visiting churches, leaders and students enough for helping us transform our community, and the role we, Pleasant Street Christian Reformed Church, have in it.

And this was only the first year.