By Andra Townshend O’Neill
Freely freely you have received
Feely freely give
Go in my name and because you believe
Others will know that I live.
(Lyrics by Maranatha)
I learned this song as a young child, allowed by my Mother to join in with the singing at the beginning of our church’s prayer group. Tuesday nights in our living room, members of the group would choose songs they had put together into a songbook and sing a few together as they prepared themselves to pray.
This particular song came to mind tonight because I have noticed something quite profound in the two churches I have been serving in. When we let go of fundraising and focus on freely inviting others into relationship with God, we begin where God began with us.
St. John the Divine Arva began to host a Pizza lunch for the students at Medway High School – a large high school down the street. The outreach committee had heard that the cafeteria was overcrowded and in Arva there are really no options for lunch other than the school. This was an opportunity to exemplify what the church was for – a place of refuge, hospitality and renewal and of course, a meal. The rector and committee wanted to invite the teenagers of this county into one of the most historic buildings of their community to let them know that they were welcome – that this church was their place too. Within a few months 500 students were coming for lunch once a month. Coming and staying, filling the hall and the church, with the church itself being one of the most popular places to eat their pizza.
The opportunity to talk to Wendy the rector, ask her questions about the holy things around them and things they wonder about – baptism, Jesus, religion while eating pizza with their friends, is a gift that will shape their lives. The church has become a place that teenagers have begun to think of as their own, where they can talk about how they think and how they feel or they can just leave with their pizza. All because it is free – they regularly confirm with us that it is free and exclaim over and over how grateful they are.
Because you believe, others will know that I live.
For the summer I moved on to another church as a summer Intern where I witnessed the same approach to outreach. Plans were underway to pick up items for their yard sale which they would be selling without prices on them. The policy is to ask people to pay what they think is fair or reasonable for them. What a change in the environment of this sale. Immediately it became Christian outreach. The neighbourhood and greater community gathered together, everyone was able to take home something new to them that was either affordable or free and in the end the church raised $1000. It was not a fundraiser but an event designed to invite, to welcome and to bring joy to others, that raised some money for the church along the way.
And that is the St. Mark’s way. Vacation Bible School was the same. Sixteen children, seven teens, five parents, eight adult volunteers, 36 people in total attended a week long VBS packed with stories about how much God loves us, snacks, crafts, games, all at no cost to those who were invited in. Given freely by the community at St. Mark’s to those invited in. Everyone is welcome, appreciated and received with joy.
This kind of giving and welcoming changes a community. It brings a joy that has been missing in some of us that have been trying diligently to fundraise, save dollars and cents and pay the bills to keep our churches open. We have been doing so many of the right things, trying to be good rational stewards. However, we are first and foremost Stewards of the gospel.
When we give freely, to welcome openly to help others to receive the grace of God, we begin to see our budgets in a new way. We begin to see God at work in our invitations and when we tell God’s story and we become energized with hope and faith in the future of our mission as a church. We begin to fill up with the Spirit and energy of God, that endless gift of grace that we have been given so freely so that we can give freely in return.
Andra Townshend O’Neill is MDiv. Postulant and a member of the diocesan Stewardship Committee.