Many opportunities exist in our community where churches and their individual members could have a more significant impact in improving our community. I detail six ways that can happen. A few churches have a track record in some of these areas, but many do not. My list of helping ways is not exhaustive, but illustrative of how much more good might be done.
Clean community efforts
Anchorage is a hot spot for tourism in Alaska. Thousands of tourists come every day to visit our town, and see what we offer. Many of our streets and highways are eyesores due to the trash seen on them. It often remains for weeks and months. Few churches or faith-based organizations have their names on roadside signs saying they are responsible for keeping that section of road clean. Even the roadways around many churches are littered with trash. The old saying, “cleanliness is next to godliness” might have greater meaning if churches took greater pride in the environments where they are located. This would also be a major way to demonstrate your church’s commitment to the community. For Christians, there are many scriptural injunctions regarding our duty to care for the earth.
Missions here are possibly more important
Some local faith-based organizations, especially Christian ones, are obsessed with the idea of sending teams of people to the ends of the earth to participate in expensive short-term mission trips. Often the countries where they go are more Christianized than the U.S. Alaska, according to most studies, is at the bottom of the scale for prayer, Bible reading, and church participation; the mission field is here. Plus research indicates most of these trips actually do more damage than good, in the long run, by engendering insidious dependencies.
A few organizations are beginning to focus on Christian microfinance as a way to better the lot of those in far-flung lands. The Chalmers Center, at Covenant College, trains churches in the U.S. and Canada to begin biblically integrated financial education classes for low-income people. They’ve trained church and ministry leaders in over 100 countries, and are currently focused on equipping networks of churches in West Africa to form church-centered savings groups. Chalmers leaders Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert wrote an amazing book, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself” which was rapidly adopted. Their associated training guides are actively helping fulfill the Gospel commission with regard to the poor. Fikkert and Russell Mask’s latest book, “From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty through Church-Centered Microfinance,” was just released. These programs are intended for local use as well.
Invite surrounding residents to a church picnic or potluck
Comparatively few churches invite their surrounding neighbors to the church for a community dinner without strings attached. I’ve attended a few of these gatherings and it’s wonderful to see churches being charitable to those in their church neighborhood. One-to-one discussions at such events go a long way in breaking down barriers and determining community needs. Anchorage is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the U.S. You never know what will come out of such a venture. One church in Chugiak discovered the neighborhood youth had no place to play inside, and opened its gymnasium to them for basketball. It engendered much good will in that neighborhood. Major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter provide powerful opportunities to not only feed and talk with each other, but to include church neighbors.
Personally participate in feeding the poor
If you’ve never helped out at one of our food banks, food distribution programs, or local helping organizations like the Downtown Soup Kitchen, Bean’s Cafe, Brother Francis Shelter, or the Rescue Mission, you’ve missed a tremendous opportunity. Yes, it requires giving up some personal time, but the return is huge. There are many other such opportunities in Anchorage, and none will turn down offers of help. Yes, you can give to support their needs, but giving is too easy. It’s important you be personally invested in the act of love and charity. Some of these organizations would love to have people come in to read, direct bingo games, or provide Bible studies for their clientele.
Provide practical approaches to building strong marriages and families
Marriage and strong family units have been under assault for many years, contributing to some of the social problems with which our community deals. Faith-based organizations can do more to address this severe need than they are currently doing. Many approaches can be used. Some of them will really change lives. I’ve recounted several examples in this column of incredible reversals of course, where couples and their children got a second chance. I think too many churches do not make these programs high priority. I rarely view any announcements about them in the paper or see them advertised on television. It takes talent, training, energy, and a strong faith commitment to pull them off but they pay off in the long run. They should also not be a one-shot deal but an ongoing process.
Community gardens go far to address many issues
An excess of land surrounds many of Anchorage’s churches. A few churches have taken the opportunity to put this land to use by providing space for neighbors to grow vegetables without charge. The gardeners are free to use the resulting produce for themselves or to sell it. Churches themselves often grow vegetables, with the help of members, to donate to charitable organizations such as the Food Bank of Alaska, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, Bean’s Cafe or others. This is a practical way to show members how to help others. I’m hoping more churches adopt this brilliant method of helping. A few will ultimately determine ways to involve showing the poor how to grow some food for their own needs.
All of these initiatives have the potential to demonstrate the commitment of our faith community in bettering the lives of many locally.
The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.