The Christmas season. It’s anticipated, enjoyed, and usually regarded as the most joyous time of the year. But not for everyone. For many people, it can be a painful time. Feelings of sorrow or loneliness can intensify during the holiday season, as people face the reality that their Christmas may not be as merry as it might have been.
In recent years, tough economic conditions have added to that pain. Job losses and fi nancial setbacks have produced discouragement and hopelessness. Even sadder is that many people try to face these challenges without Christ, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.
With those realities in mind, the Winona Lake (Ind.) Grace Brethren Church (WLGBC) organized We Care Warsaw, an outreach day designed to demonstrate God’s love to those in need in greater Warsaw-Winona Lake. (The Kosciusko County seat and its adjacent town is an area that boasts a combined population of more than 18,000 people, with more than 10 percent of that number living below the poverty level.)
The first We Care Warsaw took place in 2008, and it is now an annual event, held early in December.
Dave Rank, music and worship pastor at WLGBC, explains how the outreach came about. In addition to his role at the church, Rank is the senior coordinator of Momentum Youth Conference, an annual event sponsored by CE National. In 2008, conference young people participated in hands-on serving opportunities that reached communities near the conference site as well as third-world countries through packing meals. Afterward, youth were encouraged to look for opportunities at home to serve those in their own communities who are less fortunate.
“My heart began to become tender toward the overlooked and unseen needs in the community,” Rank says. “I wanted to follow through with what I was encouraging/expecting from [Momentum] students…and began to think, ‘How can I transfer this ministry of serving the overlooked and less fortunate in my local church and community?’ From that desire…grew the concept of We Care Warsaw.”
As We Care Warsaw took shape, it was clear that there were a variety of ways to be involved.
“It is a day of off ering complimentary services to people in need,” Rank explains, “as well as sharing about Jesus Christ as the Hope and Light of the world. The church is invited to use their gifts and skills as well as recruit others in the community to partner alongside of them to provide the complimentary services.”
Free services have included family photos, haircuts, flu shots, a bag of groceries per family, oil changes, and financial/legal advice. A special “Kids’ Zone” features inflatable games, pedal car races, Christmas cookie decorating, face painting, and Christmas crafts for children. Door prizes, donated by local businesses and individuals, are given away. We Care takes place in the church facilities and in Grace College’s Gordon Recreation Center next door. The college donates the use of the building for the event.
As part of the day, a full-course turkey dinner is provided in a setting with linens and decorated tables. Guests have shared how they appreciate the atmosphere of the dinner and also enjoy the decorated trees in the church courtyard. Last year, one older lady quietly asked a volunteer, “Can I just look at the trees?”
“We weren’t sure the first year what kind of response we would receive,” says WLGBC’s lead pastor, Bruce Barlow. “We put word out by having invitations distributed by the Salvation Army and Combined Community Services (a collaborative effort with area churches, businesses, charitable foundations, and individuals to meet needs in the area). Hundreds came the first year and it has grown annually since then. I have noticed the number and length of conversations grow each year.”
Nearly 800 people from the community attended the 2010 We Care Warsaw, with the help of 300 volunteers.
WLGBC members Jim and Terri Zielasko were two of those volunteers, having helped in both 2009 and 2010.
“It is great to see the numbers of people that come to take advantage of the services we offer,” says Terri. “It is also very inspiring to see the many volunteers that give their time and talents on that day. There are some volunteers who do not even attend our church, but still want to give to the community. For example, some of the ladies that cut hair attend other churches, but come to serve and stay from a couple of hours to all day long!
“It is a great opportunity to serve our Lord by serving others. We enjoy seeing the smiles on recipients’ faces and the fun that the children are having, and hope that they see Jesus through us!”
One feature of We Care Warsaw that has made an impact on guests is the Prayer Tent station, where the church can encourage guests with prayer. Rank tells about one lady who not only received encouragement, but gave it as well.
“One of these [guests] was a single mother with a teenage daughter who had just moved from Atlanta to the Warsaw area weeks before We Care Warsaw and was so encouraged by the day that she wrote a thank-you letter. The following year, after she had secured employment, she again wrote the church—this time with a check for $100 to go toward helping others at that year’s We Care Warsaw ministry.”
WLGBC member Donna Miller has been a Prayer Team volunteer for three years. Her role was to greet guests and pray for opportunities to share Jesus with them. At the 2010 event, she had an experience that put everything into perspective.
“I walked up to several folks and asked them how I could pray for them,” Miller says. “On several occasions I began a conversation and then asked people if they knew that Jesus died for them because He loves them. I asked one particular lady if she had ever asked Jesus to forgive her sins and come into her life, and she said no, that she had never done that. So I asked her if she would like to do that now and that I would pray with her. She said yes! So she prayed right there.
“It was so amazing and a very special time for both of us. It was so exciting when Bruce [Barlow] talked to her, not knowing what she had done, and she even told him about it because she was so excited to be a new Christian!”
The key to We Care Warsaw is not just a free meal or a give-away program. It is an outreach that allows the church to share Christ’s love in many ways.
“It has helped us to look outside the walls of the church and turn outward to see the needs—physical, emotional, and spiritual—of folks in our community,” Barlow observes.