Community Garden Takes off in Bellflower

Check out a new post from the CFA AmeriCorps blog:

Community gardening is a way a number of our AmeriCorps members have been able to engage their neighbors in meaningful relationships, and create opportunities to serve each other. Please check out the recent post on the AmeriCorps blog on the community garden efforts in his neighborhood!

Organizing Center St. in Costa Mesa CA

This is the vision statement of the Christian Reformed Church: The Christian Reformed Church is a diverse family of healthy congregations, assemblies, and ministries expressing the good news of God’s kingdom that transforms lives and communities worldwide.

What is this transforming lives and communities about?

Here is a picture for you:
Imagine a dense, low income (all of it) neighborhood in which:

  • Unemployment is high
  • There is high crime
  • Many neighbors are illegal immigrants
  • Schools struggle; most students drop out
  • There is fear – rampant fear, debilitating fear
  • Neighbors don’t know each other
  • Kids don’t play outside without a parent attending them

You get the picture.

This is a snapshot of Center Street in Costa Mesa

Add one CRWRC half-time AmeriCorps volunteer. After completing a two day asset based community development program Juval started hanging out in this neighborhood getting to know the kids. He focused first on the skate boarders (a common passion). Then he started interviewing parents. He wanted to find out their priorities for life in the neighborhood. He quickly formed a parent advisory committee and gave them responsibility to name the changes they wanted to work on in their community.

He supported them as they began English classes, Health Classes, Legal Aid, Exercise groups, Housing Forums on fair housing practices. Economic Development and Savings Plans. Plans are in the works for Neighborhood watch groups, Neighbor/Police joint ventures, and much more.

AmeriCorps service is changing the community, indigenous leaders are developing, neighbors are working together doing what they can with what they have to make life better for the common good. Bible studies are taking place, more people have a church home, and life is more peaceful – Shalom!

Juval has also changed. From a fearful and hesitant young man, he has become a servant leader. He loves the neighborhood and the people. He has signed up for a second year of service – this time full time – and then he has big plans for continuing his education.

Connecting Neighbors and Identifying Leaders

Exciting things are happening in the city of Bellflower, California.  Neighbors have started meeting and connecting with one another; they also are beginning to work together.  Community leaders are emerging and asking, “How can we make this neighborhood better?” But more importantly, these leaders are acting on their ideas.  Ryan Verwys is one of the people bringing neighbors together and identifying leaders.  Even though Ryan downplays his role and would be the first person to say that he cannot take any credit for what is happening, it can certainly be said that he is a catalyst.

After graduating from college, Ryan Verwys and his wife Rachel moved to Bellflower to work as service training interns in a two-year program through CRWRC. “We had the option to go to Kenya, Nicaragua, or Bellflower, and we accepted in the most exotic place of the three,” Ryan wryly says.

At the start of a very active two-year internship, he found himself thrown into the work of community development.  “We were just basically poured into all the resources of CRWRC,” says Ryan.  He attended numerous conferences, learned about the Communities First development model, asset-based community development, and leadership skills.  “I feel like I got a graduate degree, without getting a degree in community development,” laughs Ryan, adding, “I don’t think I’d be where I am today without CRWRC’s investment.”

After the internship with CRWRC, Ryan began another internship through Home Missions serving as youth minister and worship leader at New City CRC, in Long Beach, California.  There he gained experience in church congregational work as well as skills working with small groups.  “Home Missions has invested a lot in me in terms of training me as a leader.  A year internship with Pastor Carl [Kromminga] was really, very informative, and gave me a lot of experience.”

Putting their newfound experiences to work, Ryan and Rachel started a house church while doing community development on the side.  Although they did not originally intend to stay there, Bellflower became home.  “We kind of intended to just be here for [the] two-year peer commitment,” says Ryan, “But while we were here it felt like God just broke our hearts for the city and gave us some passion for staying.  I just felt like it [the Church in Bellflower] was this sleeping giant, that if we could help the church and people to see the felt needs of our neighbors that there’s this really beautiful opportunity for the kingdom to come in a really tangible way for our neighbors.”

One thing led to another and now Ryan works fulltime as community development director for a non-profit organization he nurtured in the Eucalyptus neighborhood of Bellflower, a low-income, diverse and crowded area of the city.  He is also a home church planter on the side.

Instead of creating programs haphazardly, Ryan and his staff set out to discover more about the neighbors and ask what they felt could be improved in the neighborhood. For the past year and a half, door-to-door surveys in the neighborhood mapped the assets and concerns of the residents.  Overwhelmingly the neighbors responded that they desired a safe environment for their kids.  “It’s been a process of slowly identifying who are those neighbor leaders who want to do something about it,” says Ryan.

For example, some women from the neighborhood, concerned about cuts in school art programs, proposed starting a community photography class.  With this idea in hand, Ryan and his staff went about figuring out how to make it happen.  They found funding to buy some digital cameras and identified local Christians who knew about photography, including someone who owned his own studio, to help teach the class.

Another leader emerged out of a soccer league that Ryan helped neighbors organize.  One guy named Carlos immediately showed signs of being a leader.  According to Ryan, “When [Carlos] would take things seriously the rest of the kids would take things seriously, and when he would goof off the rest of the kids would goof off.”    Ryan talked to Carlos and told him, “You’re a leader.  You have some leadership skills.  I’d really like to invest in you as a leader, and I wonder if you’d be willing to run this soccer thing.”  Carlos rose to the challenge and took charge of the program for the rest of the summer.

Then they invited Carlos to come to the community center and talk about what else he would like to do to make the neighborhood better.  But Carlos did more than just show up, he brought along a whole team of young people from town; they became a kind of team leadership core for the neighborhood.  Excitedly Ryan says, “What’s cool is this team of young leaders now is taking a responsibility to think about a plan for how to be involved in making [the neighborhood] better, which is really pretty cool.  I’ve probably been praying about a year and a half that God would raise up leaders and I feel like God just pretty miraculously answered that prayer…”

Now that leaders have emerged and neighbors are working together there are many issues to deal with from housing costs to crime.  So Ryan and the neighbors have their work cut out for them, but Ryan feels their investment in the neighborhood is going to pay off.

“We’re starting to see baby steps,” says Ryan.  “What’s rewarding is when I see deacons from some of the local CRC churches particularly, who are really just starting to see what it’s like to live with and share a life with the poor and to be involved in the mission and get excited about that.  I’m also excited that that same deacon is serving along side a Baptist deacon…and they’re loving their neighbors together.  That really gets me excited.”

That’s the thing about sleeping giants: sooner or later they’re going to wake up.  Sometimes they just need someone to rouse them.