“A Balance of In-reach and Out-reach”
The First Congregational Church in Wellsville, New York, believes in a balance of in-reach and out-reach. That formula might suggest a rigid division between faith and good works–if First Congregational weren’t a community church where faith informs all their work. But in a town of only eight thousand people, which is the population center of the county, no one at First Congregational is known simply as a church member. One of the tenors in the church choir plows village streets come winter blizzards. Another member is the math teacher who has educated generations of the town’s kids. In short, church members know, and are known by, almost everyone in town.
When the First Congregational Church sponsors a Lenten study series on “Living God’s Peace,” as they did earlier this year, it might be classified as “in-reach.” In fact, however, it was a community event. Indeed, it is rare when the public isn’t involved in congregational life. At the annual “Sing for Joy” Benefit-for-Health concert, “community and church really connect,” says Rev. William B. Jones. That’s when musicians ranging from choral groups to a jazz band pack the front of the sanctuary, and the rest of the space is jammed with listeners, while children spill out onto the church lawn!
But perhaps the best-known example of combined in-reach and out-reach can be found in the Haiti mission efforts organized by the congregation. Every February since 1986, [a] community ophthalmologist and church member…has led a team of a dozen or so health professionals down to the Republic of Haiti, and then up into the central uplands, where there is no eye clinic. For a week, they provide the care which local villagers can otherwise find only in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, a twelve-hour trip over the mountains away. Some of the volunteers come from the congregation. Some come from the Wellsville community. And some come from as far away as St. Louis, recruited by relatives or friends at First Congregational.
Four times in the past ten years, church youth and their adult advisors have also gone down to Haiti, on a ten-day summer work camp. Their mission is to help villagers build a home with a local family, who then promise to help another family construct their home. Everyone in Wellsville, in a county where a quarter of the residents are on welfare, knows about poverty. But they have never seen anything like the conditions in Haiti, the poorest country in the Hemisphere. After that experience, as Rev. Jones says, “we cannot ever not think about Haiti again.”
Thinking about and praying with the people of Haiti helps maintain that balance between in-reach and out-reach which is so important in the life of the First Congregational Church in Wellsville-and many other faithful United Church of Christ congregations.
Article prepared by United Church of Christ Bulletin Service writer Alfred Jones for Nov. 16, 2003.