Avon Grove Church of the Nazarene is located in southern Chester County, Pennsylvania. On a map, we are just north of the spot where Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania come together. While Chester County as a whole is one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, our corner includes a large group of Spanish-speaking migrant workers, whose most common industry is agribusiness. Historically, these workers have primarily been from Mexico, but in recent years the area has also become home to a growing number of families from Guatemala and Honduras.
We believe that the best folks to walk beside someone during a difficult time are those who have also journeyed there.
Avon Grove Church of the Nazarene has traditionally been a small, working-class church, averaging in the low to mid hundreds in attendance. Though it is now more racially diverse than when it was first planted in 1949, our parishioners are still predominantly Caucasian. Our congregants have organized multiple family-focused initiatives in recent years to reach, connect with, and serve others in our community. One such ministry is The Bridge, which has been in operation since 2003.
What is the The Bridge?
The Bridge is a food and clothing ministry housed and administered by Avon Grove Church and supported by nine additional churches as well as other organizations and individuals within our community and public school district.
We provide a box of locally grown produce, bread, dairy, and nonperishable food items to families depending on household size. We also provide diapers, infant formula, clothing for both children and adults, and household items like toiletries, bedding, small appliances, games, or school supplies. On average we serve between thirty-five and sixty families a week and more than six hundred different families each year. We also provide emergency food and clothing on an individual basis when needed and when we have the resources.
Our volunteers of all ages come from each of the ten supporting churches, the local schools, and area service organizations, and the periodic food and clothing drives we organize are often well supported. Many of our volunteers themselves need the same services they are helping others receive through our ministry. Since the majority of the population we serve is Spanish-speaking, we have community volunteers who serve as translators. We have nurses and social workers who volunteer to assist and advise our clients in finding resources beyond what we provide. We are also able, through a partnership with local nurses, to offer free flu shots.
While generational poverty is a reality for some of the people we serve, most are facing situational poverty. This is not something they are used to, and it takes courage to say, “I need help feeding my kids.”
We’re open one night a week, and there’s usually a line of anywhere from twenty-five to fifty of our neighbors waiting outside our doors. Many come after working a ten-hour shift in the mushroom houses and stopping at home to pick up their children. Those who are visiting for the first time meet with our compassionate ministries director and a nurse or social worker so we can assess their basic needs. We make it a point not to pry about certain details like finances or immigration status. We do our best to meet their most basic needs, whether it’s food or clothing or information about other places to get help. The clients we serve are mostly local to our community, especially in conjunction with the public school district, but we do not turn anyone away.
We have crafted several reminder mantras to help everyone—whether volunteers or our clients—understand our perspective and our mission:
Neighbor serving Neighbor. One of the greatest compliments we are paid is when folks cannot tell the difference between those providing the services and those being served. It is commonplace for clients who come for clothing to bring clothing their own children have outgrown to be passed on to other families. We also have families who come needing food but who also bring in the produce they have grown in their own gardens to share with others. Service leads to service.
“Me too.” We believe that the best folks to walk beside someone during a difficult time are those who have also journeyed there. Most of those who serve at The Bridge, including our current compassionate ministries director, have at one time needed assistance themselves. They remember how it feels to be treated with respect and how it felt when they were not.
Those we serve are courageous. While generational poverty is a reality for some of the people we serve, most are facing situational poverty. This is not something they are used to, and it takes courage to say, “I need help feeding my kids.”
Treat our neighbors the way we ourselves want to be treated. This one is so self-explanatory that a version of it even appears in the Bible (Matthew 7:12).
How did The Bridge get started?
When my family and I arrived at Avon Grove, we strove to learn everything we could about this community where we had been called to minister, including talking with school nurses. We found that a growing number of children did not have the clothing they needed and that the only healthy and consistently reliable meal many children received was the school lunch.
And, in the fall of that same year, a hurricane flooded hundreds of our most vulnerable neighbors out of their homes. Area churches partnered together in the relief effort, impressing upon us the reality of how much we can accomplish when we work together.
As a result, our church secretary at the time, who is now our compassionate ministries director for The Bridge, began thinking about a systemic solution to the needs we saw. Her personal experience with the frustration caused by bureaucracy when her own family needed help gave her the ability to imagine a different way to provide relief.
Eventually I went to our area ministerium with the idea of developing a joint food and clothing ministry. Many of the other churches already had their own small ministries, and none felt confident that they were truly effective. They also knew that a disparity existed between the many families receiving no help at all and other families who had learned how to work the system and were therefore receiving help from multiple sources. Our vision was for our churches to combine our individual, paltry efforts into one joint ministry that could effectively find and reach those who didn’t know where to turn or how to ask for help, and perhaps also those who have been denied help by other organizations or have simply given up because of the red tape.
Keep it simple. Don’t try to do everything.
Avon Grove volunteered to host and administer the effort, and the other churches agreed to refer constituents to our location. The other churches were also invited to refer members of their congregations interested in volunteering. Two keys to getting the ministry off the ground were the level of trust among the involved clergy members as well as a shared belief that a duplication of services was not necessary. It was important that we all recognized and agreed that we could make a greater difference together than we could separately.
What do you wish you knew on day one that you didn’t know?
Keep it simple. Don’t try to do everything. Figure out which needs you can effectively meet, and do it. Nobody can do everything well, and there will always be needs that are beyond your scope or ability. That’s why at The Bridge we do our best to maintain accurate information on other organizations and resources for our clients so that, once we’ve met the needs we are able to meet, we can successfully connect them to where they can get the rest of the help they need.
Don’t be discouraged if you face resistance from those who don’t share your values, have a NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) mentality, or who consider the neighbors you serve adversaries rather than friends.
How has The Bridge impacted your surrounding community and the volunteers who give their time to this ministry?
It has brought together the churches operationally. Because Avon Grove has condensed multiple food and clothing ministries into one, other churches are able to strengthen other areas of service like ESL instruction or heating fuel assistance or job placement services. And, because we regularly communicate with one another, we make sure we are, as a collective, meeting needs in a robust, well-rounded manner rather than duplicating our services.
It has broadened our physical reach to our community. We have expanded church and community partnerships to include supporting the founding and growth of a youth and community center and a multi-church partnership to minister to homeless families. The local Rotary Club provides volunteers, stocks our diapers and infant formula, and donates turkeys at Thanksgiving.
It has broadened our spiritual reach to our community. A local Spanish-speaking Methodist congregation moved their Tuesday evening Bible study meeting to the Avon Grove campus so they can connect with and minister to families who come to The Bridge.
It has given us an opportunity to minister to our volunteers. Many of our volunteers also receive services from The Bridge. They see the donation of their time in volunteer hours as a way of giving back to the organization that helps them. We allow both youth and adults who need community service hours to volunteer at The Bridge. Many of these volunteers might not otherwise ever set foot inside a church building, so we have a unique opportunity to minister to them as they serve alongside us.
It has given us the opportunity to build trust with an often marginalized community. Our area health department wanted to provide free flu shots, but they struggled to connect enough with the members of the Hispanic community to convince them to receive the shots. The health department knew of The Bridge’s ministry, so they approached us for help getting the word out. We set up a temporary clinic onsite, and hundreds of our constituents agreed to receive the shot at our location. Now the flu shot clinic recurs every fall at Avon Grove.
How has this ministry challenged you as a pastor?
The Bridge has dramatically increased our church’s footprint in the community. I am regularly asked by other pastors why we do The Bridge when it is unlikely our clients will come to our church. This particular question gives me an opportunity to explain to colleagues from other denominations what it means to be a Nazarene and why local compassionate ministry is an essential part of Nazarene DNA. Usually, the next question is how a church of our size does all we do, and I am able to point out that we do not and could not do it alone.
There have been times when I have been confronted in the community by someone who does not agree with what we are doing. They want to argue against helping those who are undocumented, or they want to argue national immigration policy in general, or they believe giving someone something for free is counterproductive. I welcome these conversations as an opportunity for extended ministry, and I take pride in being recognized in the community as the pastor of the church that facilitates this important ministry.