Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Md., has a vested interest in social justice that goes beyond sending money or supplies to local service agencies.
For the past 23 years, the congregation has been changing lives by sending carefully chosen volunteers through their Westmoreland Volunteer Corps, the only domestic volunteer service of its kind in the UCC.
Each year, five volunteers are chosen to live in the church's parsonage, where they live in an intentional community on a limited income. Based on their interests and skills, each individual is placed to work in a social service agency in the Washington, D.C., area for a year-long commitment. Since the program is linked to Americorps, the WVC program accepts volunteers regardless of religious beliefs, and there are no religious objectives in the program. Volunteers are provided with health insurance, transportation, a monthly food allowance and a small personal expense stipend. However, what sets the WVC program apart from others is the community of care provided by the Westmoreland congregation.
John Pielemeier, an active church member who serves on the WVC board, says that when the five volunteers arrive each Labor Day, the group is introduced to the church family. Shortly thereafter, there is a "Pound Party," where it is tradition that visitors stop by the parsonage, welcome the volunteers, and bring a pound of food or bulk supplies to line the group's pantry shelves.
As the volunteers get comfortable in their new postings, they will later be invited to speak during a "Mission Moment" during a Sunday worship service. What results, says Pielemeier, is an easygoing, informal relationship between the volunteer group and the congregation.
Once a week, someone from the congregation hosts the volunteers for dinner at their house. "Members get to know them on their own," says Pielemeier. "They'll give [the volunteers] a call when they need a housesitter or a dogsitter. One of our members invites them out on the Chesapeake Bay in his sailboat. Maybe someone has season tickets to the theatre, or some cultural event, and they'll share those tickets [with the volunteers]."
Pielemeier, a Peace Corps veteran, says his past experiences, as well as other board members' experiences, helps them to counsel volunteers as they face various on-the-job realities. "We know there are ups and downs," says Pielemeier.
Pielemeier says three or four months into the volunteer posting can be discouraging at times. "You begin to think, 'Am I having any impact here?'"
That's why Pielemeier and other board members regularly check in with volunteers.
However, by the end of the program, in May or June, Pielemeier notices changes among the volunteers.
"As you might imagine," he says, "when they arrive they are very energetic and idealistic."
Many volunteers leave the program with renewed focus. For many, that includes more education, oftentimes in a service-related area, such as divinity school, medical school or law school. Some continue working for the same agency as a full-time employee.
Learn more http://www.westmorelanducc.org/