Published March 2nd, 2017 at 6:00 AM
When a storm blew through Shawnee this summer, it left downed trees and branches in an elderly man’s yard. He had neither the financial nor the physical means to clean up.
Many suburban codes don’t make exceptions when it comes to unkempt yards. But in Shawnee, the city has a backup plan thanks to a compassionate group of religious leaders who formed the City/Church Partnership a few years ago. Chris Winn, lead pastor at Community Life Church in Shawnee, got the call.
A team of religious volunteers went out with chainsaws, built a bonfire with the wood and fixed lunch. “They burned all of it while they roasted wieners,” Winn says.
They did something similar for a soldier deployed to Iraq and again when someone needed their shutters fixed.
Winn recalls the mayor’s skeptical expression. It portrayed a man wondering, “What do you want? What are you mad about?”
“After an hour or so of conversation, (the mayor) started to relax and realized we had no idea. We just had influence over thousands of people,” Winn says. “Our whole purpose was to engage the people sitting in our pews to serve in our city.”
The partnership’s effort is an example of one of KLC’s five core leadership principles in action – “your purpose must be clear.” By anchoring their efforts in a desire to energize congregants into living out their faith through service, organizers have allowed groups to connect with others and shape their community for the better.
Eventually religious leaders throughout the city started creating a system whereby the city could enlist their help.
Church members took emergency-preparedness classes, donated blankets to the fire department and offered their sanctuaries as temporary shelters. They also offered to help residents who met hardship requirements with code violations.
The city and religious leaders created catalyst teams and enlisted key people – the mayor, police chief, fire chief, code administrators and more – to meet regularly. The group identified four keys areas of assistance: emergency preparedness, education, community needs and volunteerism, and spiritual support teams.
A few years before, churchgoers took ownership of the Flags of Freedom project, an effort to place flags along Johnson Drive, a main thoroughfare. Shawnee had been planning to discontinue it for lack of manpower.
The religious communities put out notices, and volunteers descended. Boy Scouts and others then took on the annual project.
“The thing about it is, when the church steps forward and begins to serve, it leads the way for everyone to start serving,” Winn says. “Our ultimate goal is to get neighbors helping neighbors.”
When volunteers show up at homes, sometimes curious neighbors come over to learn what’s really happening.
“Our goal is instead of people calling the city is for them to step up and say, well, I can do that – like they do in small towns,” he says. The groups also work to provide mentors and tutors at Shawnee schools. Fittingly, they offer a spiritual support team that promotes peace and a volunteer chaplain program for police and fire departments.
The churches recently brought in a chaplain instructor. Winn said they invited regional churches to participate. They trained more than 20 chaplains from surrounding cities and counties. Religious leaders acknowledge that the overall program has been a learning experience for everyone. Cross Points Church startled city officials recently by blanketing them with notes of prayer, encouragement and thanks.
“The first time it happened, they didn’t know what was going on,” Winn says. “It really freaked them out. Then they realized that, no, we’re just supporting you.”
Winn says they’re careful not to overstep the division of church and state.
“Our goal is not to go in and proselytize. Our goal is simply to go and serve and meet the needs knowing that the reason why we do this is because of our faith,” he says. “That’s what Jesus said, ‘I’ve come to serve not to be served.’
“So when we the church follow Jesus and we go out and do what he did – go out and serve instead of waiting for the city to come serve us – good things happen.”
—Dawn Bormann Novascone is a freelance journalist based in Kansas City who spent 15 years covering news at The Kansas City Star.