New Life in Christ, the GCI congregation in Queens, New York City, conducted its annual Back-to-School event during the last weekend of July and focused community engagement into August. We distributed 300 backpacks (more than double any previous year), reaching hundreds of households in its home neighborhood of Richmond Hill, Queens. (Our community of Richmond Hill is one of the most diverse communities in the most diverse borough of a very diverse city.)
The backpack distribution event and cookout took place on Saturday, July 30, followed by a special Sunday Service attended by some of our outreach guests. The message, “Rich Towards God,” focused on the liberation Christ offers from the burdens that society seeks to impose.
The congregation used the month of August to focus on effective follow-up steps and deeper community engagement. On August 13, the congregation also joined with a community partner, The River Fund, as a sponsor and as volunteers. The River Fund is a non-profit focused on combatting poverty and its effects on families, with its back-to-school/food outreach for thousands of families in our greater community.
The total effort, which involved nearly every active member and ministry of the congregation, was implemented in the process of refining each of our Hope, Love, and Faith Avenues to facilitate the Spirit’s ongoing transformation of our congregation’s heart to better align with the missional imagination of Christ for our community. Members took time to design special mugs, prayer cards, and encouragement for students and teachers. Our hospitality team crafted a special cookout experience for all our guests.
Our Love Avenue team (driven by our Women’s Ministry) began this outreach and engagement process in the spring with our ambitious plan in prayer to reach hundreds of households in the community and distribute that many backpacks. This year, we especially focused on enhancing the guest experience and follow-up steps rather than merely putting on an event. Our guiding principle was Christ’s admonition, “One Thing is Needed” from Luke 10: focus on the presence of Christ, focus on the guests. This involved concentrated planning, including equipping a team that focused on welcoming guests, praying where feasible, and embracing opportunities to present our congregation. We wanted our members to express confidence in the power of their short stories of faith and encouragement.
About half of our guests pre-registered for the event through our social media channels. So, we had a good sense of who would be coming, their circumstances, and some prayer concerns. We also prepared for the engagement process (as part of community exegesis) by attending community meetings, visiting businesses and schools, and engaging local law enforcement.
We are joining with Christ’s enduring mission for spiritual, physical, and emotional transformation in our multi-racial, multi-ethnic community in forming lasting relationships in genuine place sharing. We recognize that incarnational engagement is not “extra,” but a very part of our own identity as disciples of Christ. In line with the biblical admonitions, “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18), so that we are able “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18).