Walking into the lobby of Simi Community Church in Simi Valley, California, involves witnessing a sight any member of the congregation (or Southern California resident, for that matter) can connect with: a life-size Lite-Brite sign.
The 4-by-8-foot display, adorning the wall near the church’s Welcome Center, communicates in blue and clear letters Simi’s mission statement: “Live and love like Jesus.”
For Simi Community Church, “living and loving like Jesus” is an ongoing mission, whether in triumph or tragedy. Its campus resides about 12 miles northeast of the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, where a mass shooting took place last Nov. 7, killing 13 (including the gunman) and injuring a dozen more.
“Lord, show me a need that is around me.”
The congregation directly felt the impact of the event, as many of its members frequented the country-western bar and live music venue.
“Members of our church would go there to line dance,” senior pastor Paul Weir said. “Several had met their spouses there. Our worship leader actually headlines a band that plays there a lot.”
While no members suffered any injuries, the tragedy was a reminder, Weir said, of his congregation’s responsibility to “be the eyes and ears” of the church when it comes to identifying a need in the community — which helps explain the Lite-Brite sign.
Weir introduced the sign the first Sunday of 2019 as part of Simi’s 5000 Acts of Kindness campaign. Churchgoers find ways to meet the needs of those around them. In true Lite-Brite fashion, with each act completed, a blue or clear peg goes onto the sign. His goal is to complete the sign before the end of the year.
“Kindness comes from our love of Christ,” Weir said. “The idea behind this campaign is, ‘Lord, show me a need that is around me, and I am going to assume you want me to do it.’”
A perfect example of “Love your neighbor as yourself”
Lifespring Church witnessed firsthand a tragedy of a different magnitude. Planted in 2016 in Chico, California, the church meets at an elementary school about 7 miles from Paradise, a town devastated by the Camp Fire last November.
As residents of Paradise evacuated to Chico, the town became a hub of sorts for relief efforts. Its population increased by roughly 25%.
“It’s been a perfect example of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” Lifespring founding pastor Luke Buyert said. “We’ve had people who have been displaced, running for their lives, who we have been ministering to — the pain, grief, loss, fears, insecurities, complicated issues.”
Like Simi, Lifespring avoided major tragedy, as only two of its 60 regular attendees were from Paradise. Though the church may not have been in harm’s way, it found itself in the middle of a worldwide relief effort.
“Initially, we were ministering in crisis relief,” Buyert said. “Making sure people had somewhere to live. Getting gift cards into people’s hands. Because we’re a mobile church, we tried not to collect items but still received some.”
Three weeks later, the church established a grant program in which Camp Fire victims recommended by a Lifespring attendee could apply for $500 toward putting their lives back together. Perhaps even more important, though, was the person on the other end of a 30-minute phone call each applicant received: a member of the Lifespring family ready to listen to someone’s story, learn about their needs, offer counseling or financial advice or just be someone with whom to connect.
Buyert said the recommendation aspect was important because it allowed individuals to identify those in crisis in a way he and other Lifespring leaders couldn’t.
“It was a bridge to connect with them,” he said. “We felt those displaced individuals and families would connect because of an existing relationship they had with a believer. That person may not end up attending Lifespring, but they might go (to church) somewhere.”
One of Lifespring’s core values, Buyert says, is “to exist to be a blessing to our community.” Finding himself on the front lines of relief efforts following the deadliest fire in the United States in 100 years led Buyert to an even greater opportunity to bless those around him. While continuing to lead Lifespring, Buyert now serves as Butte County’s faith community resource coordinator, allowing him to focus on the rebuilding of Paradise, located in an area known as “The Ridge.”
“We’re connecting and trying to organize and collaborate with Butte County and long-term recovery groups, trying to make resources avail- able to survivors,” Buyert said. “Chico churches should carry the burden, but Paradise churches should carry the vision.”
He also stressed providing resources for pastors of the 20 “Ridge” churches, including money for pastoral care – emotional or spiritual counseling or attending a conference – or even time away with family.
“At the root of it all, people were looking for hope.”
Among those who encouraged Buyert to pursue this new leadership role was one who has been in his shoes: Mike Baker, lead pastor of Crosspoint Community Church in Santa Rosa, California.
Baker lost his home during the Tubbs Fire in October 2017. All told, 80 percent of church members were evacuated, with 10 families losing their homes. As he and his congregation looked to pick up the pieces in their own lives, Baker looked around and saw an opportunity to minister to an area that is traditionally resistant to the gospel.
“At the root of it all, people were looking for hope, and we were able to talk with folks and relate to them, since we were walking the same path,” Baker said. “It allowed us to speak into folks’ lives.”
Seventeen months later, as Baker and around two dozen people look to move back into their homes, he said there still is “a lot of hurt and a lot of need,” but Crosspoint is continuing to find new ways to connect with the community.
One way was its involvement in a one-year anniversary remembrance of the fire, held in the middle of a burned neighborhood. The church came alongside neighbors to plan the gathering, brightened by luminaries and attended by nearly 500 people.
“Folks from our church were there to talk, hug, pray — it was an opportunity for us to be hand in hand with the community. It was really meaningful.”
Crosspoint is also impacting the next generation of its community. When the principal of nearby Lehman Elementary School expressed a need for positive role models for her students, several men from the church stepped up and are mentoring several boys from the school.
“The need in the community is ongoing,” Baker said. “We just want to know what we can do to help, because it is making a difference here.
“The consistency in showing Christ’s love is paying off.”
Troy Emenecker, Guest writer
Troy Emenecker is a freelance writer for Converge. He attends a Converge church in Mesa, Arizona.