“Love your neighbor. Feed the poor. Welcome the stranger. Protect the children. Follow me. Could it be any easier to grasp?“Vienna Presbyterian Church
“But the new normal for the church’s mission work these days looks very different.“
“This simple but unusual invitation is changing lives and forging bonds with a group of people who are finding out, perhaps for the first time, that the church cares deeply for them and wants to help.“
“The bottom line is that people in our community should feel welcome and needed.“
If somehow, miraculously, Jesus appeared on the earth today and started walking around taking stock of the church he launched some two thousand years ago, what do you suppose he would think?
His work was simple. His message was direct and straightforward. Love your neighbor. Feed the poor. Welcome the stranger. Protect the children. Follow me. Could it be any easier to grasp? And, yet, somehow the message and the mission has become more complicated through the years and those original commands are, not surprisingly, forgotten in the muddle.
If Jesus walked around Vienna, Virginia these days, I think He would be encouraged by the quiet harbingers of a revolution, one not dissimilar to his own, and one that might serve as a model for churches in other communities across the land. Change is afoot, and the people leading that change are taking a different path, one that harks back to a New Testament version of Christianity that is already having a real impact outside of the four walls of the church and beyond. These churches fully understand their important role and their mission. And, there is much to do, no doubt.
“The fact is, the major needs of communities have not changed in a very long time,” says Director of Missions at Vienna Presbyterian Church, Sue Hamblen. “Jobs, transportation, child care, and language.” She and her team, along with a number of churches in Vienna are stepping out and building systems and bridges to the community to deal with those pressing issues, and they are seeing tremendous results.
Hamblen is now in her seventh year in her role. She has been a member of the church for 31 years, but for 24 of those she worked informally, taking the occasional mission trip and working with the various children’s ministries as her own children grew up. At some point, she felt like she needed to do more, to take a much more active role in the Vienna Presbyterian Church and its work in the community. That’s another characteristic of revolutionaries – they don’t often come from the places we would expect them to come from. Sue was a parishioner, not a trained theologian or pastor. She was a concerned observer who decided to roll up her shirtsleeves and get involved. The message for the rest of us? We can all do something. We just have to decide that we are going to, and then get started.
Revolutionaries also need room to grow into the job. Hamblen says that she and her team has been given that by the senior leadership at the church. Their focus is outward, and they know that they will need to be open to new ideas and new tools and methods to accomplish their mission.
THE NEW NORMAL
While Vienna Presbyterian Church has always been missional, the methods up to now have been more traditional, with money being raised to fund church trips to help out missionaries already at work in the field. But the new normal for the church’s mission work these days looks very different. It involves mentoring school kids, teaching the English language to immigrants and their children, housing the homeless inside of the church during winter, and tutoring students.
It’s much needed local mission work, addressing the issues of people in the neighborhoods around the church and beyond.
Each of these endeavors is an enormous undertaking. “Together, they are too much for any one church to do all by themselves,” says Hamblen. “We partner with other churches and local organizations to get the job done.” Sometimes those partnerships are forged with non-church affiliated groups who have already laid the tracks down for success and understand the landscape and the scope of the problem being addressed. This kind of church/non-church relationship is rare, but becoming less so. Most churches choose to work only within their denominational framework to solve problems or instigate change. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. “Why not partner with people who have already been there and done that?” says Hamblen. “That takes a great deal of trust, of course, but I believe that it has the best chance of leading to success without the steep learning curve associated with completely new and difficult endeavors like these.”
And, how is all of this outward focus being received by those in the church? After all, it’s new to them as well. One example speaks volumes. For the past three winters, Vienna Presbyterian church has invited the homeless to sleep inside of the church for two weeks as part of the hypothermia program. This simple but unusual invitation is changing lives and forging bonds with a group of peoplewho are finding out, perhaps for the first time, that the church cares deeply for them and wants to help. Even the most skeptical parishioner can see the impact
of this invitation and appreciate it.
“The bottom line is that people in our community should feel welcome and needed,” says Fred Wilson, member of First Baptist Church, Vienna, “And also to know that, regardless of their needs or circumstances, there are people in the community who are willing and able to help.”
Thankfully, the missions work in Vienna is just getting started and as it moves forward it is sure to continue venturing into places that churches don’t normally go. “We hosted a blue ribbon panel on sex trafficking last year and we prayed that 25 people would join us there,” says Hamblen. “We had 300 people show up.”
Vienna Presbyterian church is an official business partner with Cunningham Elementary School, and they are, in Hamblen’s words, “hyper-focused” on them and the needs of the kids there. “We started a mentoring program there last year,” She says, “and I’m not sure who had more fun- the mentees or the mentors.” This year, they’ll be introducing field trips and giving the children the opportunity to see the monuments around D.C.
The church has plans to expand a childcare ministry co-operative to help struggling parents who need occasional safe, supervised care for their children.
All of this important work had a simple beginning, according to Hamblen: “We started by listening.”
VIENNA PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
124 PARK STREET N.E.
VIENNA, VA 22180