A ‘Year of Kindness’ changes church, community, and leads to a new nonprofit

There’s a meme that spreads throughout social media in times of collective contention reminding people “in a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

Kindness can make a difference in the world, with recent studies showing that even the smallest acts of kindness can have a profound positive impact on mental health.

It can also have a life-bettering impact on a church and its community as the Athol Congregational Church in Massachusetts discovered when it embarked on a “Year of Kindness” in 2023.

The kindness endeavor, funded by the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ’s “Faith in Our Future Together” grant, intended to educate communities on important social topics and encourage inclusivity. It invited young and old alike to commit random acts of kindness, any gesture that would make someone smile and feel loved. Rake a yard. Carry grocery bags. Pay for a stranger’s cup of coffee.

Kindness is contagious

But there was more to this invitation.

“Kindness Cards,” imprinted with a QR code, were given to anyone caught doing something kind. The recipient of the card was to scan the code and leave an account of the act of kindness on the Athol Kindness Facebook page, along with a picture of them holding the card.

“We soon saw photos featuring so many people telling of their acts of kindness done or witnessed,” said the Rev. Dr. Candi Ashenden, senior pastor of Athol Congregational.

The kindness cards were shared with Athol’s businesses, organizations, the school district and other churches. The stories told soon ignited more acts of kindness. Banners and yard signs were created and began appearing all over town, celebrating Athol as a “town in which people were intentionally choosing kindness,” said Ashenden.

As part of the Year of Kindness, cards were made to give to those caught doing something kind. A QR code then allowed the stories of kindness to be shared on social media.

The Rev. Cindy LaJoy, Athol’s interfaith and newly appointed outreach minister, said it was powerful to see the transformation within the community, as well as to see partnerships between the church and community groups emerging.

“When before no one really thought about turning to us for help, we are now the ‘go-to’ church…the church that gets things done,” said LaJoy.

The congregation also became known as the “kindness people,” added Ashenden.

“As a result, through the nudging of the Spirit in the form of suggestions and direct requests from community members, we [the congregation] heard a call to continue the kindness work in an on-going specific way,” she added.

Rev. Cindy LaJoy, Athol’s interfaith and outreach minister (third from left), and (second from right) Rev. Dr. Candi Ashenden, Athol’s senior pastor, are excited how the Year of Kindness has changed the culture of a community.

In January 2024, the Athol Congregational announced the launch of a kindness non-profit — the Athol Kindness Connection. Its focus, says Ashenden, is to continue to help those in the community as needed, with extra attention to caring for the older population — a demographic on the rise in Athol.

Telling the love of Jesus without saying a word

Athol Congregational Church’s new-found “fame” as the kindness people was not the intent of the “Year of Kindness.”

Both pastors agree the acts of kindness were not for the congregational growth or revitalization. Nor was it about proselytizing, added LaJoy.

“We wanted to take the teachings of Jesus out into our community, and found that by spreading kindness as a value, without traditional Christian language, the message was more readily heard and embraced,” said Ashenden.

LaJoy also noted that in such a divisive world, “Who would argue against kindness?” And, by promoting kindness, the pastors hoped they “could change the culture of our town for the better.”

A culture change

A culture change had begun and, with the support of the Athol select board, a proclamation from State Senator Jo Comerford was presented to the Athol Congregational Church and the Athol Town Hall, applauding their efforts.

“God was clearly present with us every step of the way as people caught the vision and asked to be more involved in the kindness work,” said Ashenden.

While focused on the community, there was no containing the movement of the Spirit within the Athol congregation. One Sunday, the pastors commissioned everyone in attendance as a “minister of kindness,” placing a red stole around each person’s neck — the color symbolizing the movement of the Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost.

More engagement and participation

Soon thereafter, Ashenden began noticing changes among her flock. “Fringe” members began stepping up, seeking to become more involved, Ashenden says. Older members, too, became more engaged as there were ways that they, too, could participate, added LaJoy.

“There was a woman who became so excited and moved by the messages of kindness —and the delight on children’s faces as their photos were shared when they received kindness cards — that she suddenly invested whole-heartedly in both the project — and in the life of the church, seeking to grow her own faith by engaging in Bible studies, confirmation class,” said Ashenden, adding, “There have been many God moments.”

For LaJoy, her work continues now in heeding the Spirit’s call for the new Athol Kindness Connection non-profit. And as she takes one step of faith in front of the other, she admits she often finds herself smiling as she muses, “It’s nice to be known as the ‘kind church’ rather than ‘that kind of church.’”

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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