Hundreds of church volunteers converged on almost two dozen worksites in southeast Pennsylvania last week, helping homeowners as part of Mission Trip Birdsboro.
St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Birdsboro, which launched the mission of service in 2014, is now working in partnership with several other local congregations to share ministry in their community.
“Mission Trip Birdsboro was initially started to help those within our own area instead of traveling to different parts of the country or world,” said Dawn Fear, one of the original organizers and now chair of the leadership team. ´”We spread hope and love in our communities and like our theme ‘Unbroken’, we show God's unbroken spirit.”
“Mission Trip Birdsboro is about taking time to attempt to be more Christ-like in our actions. We can show love for our neighbors and help those with needs,” said Stuart Wells, a member of the leadership team and another initial organizer. “Let those outside of church see what it means to strive to follow what Christ taught—to emulate Christian love, service to others, forgiveness, and faith.”
Pandemic, protests prompt a pivot
Over the course of three days, more than 100 volunteers tackled dozens of projects at 23 sites from Wednesday, July 22, through Friday, July 24, with a wrap-up worship service and celebration on Saturday. Flexibility and perseverance in the face of adversity guided the mission in 2020, which completely had to shift focus because of COVID-19.
MLB was designed around inside projects, repairing people’s homes after soliciting requests for assistance from the community. This year, the pandemic prompted project planners to rethink their entire process.
“We didn’t know early on how this was going to unfold, planning back in December. In the early stages of COVID-19, we went back and forth, on what do we do?”We knew that going ahead as usual or canceling were not options. We need to do it, in spite of COVID, just as we knew there were things to be done,” Wells said. “People have needs, with added stress and isolation. Even if things were locked down, we could pray for people.”
So the Mission team began rethinking the work in March, meeting on Zoom instead of around a conference table, sharing information on the MTB Facebook page.
“This year the theme is ‘Unbroken,’ staying true and adapting mission trip to make it work for the pandemic,” Wells said. “We had to revamp how it’s done. Everything looks different, with masks, and social distancing. Motivation has remained the same. There’s still enthusiasm to do the work.”
Volunteer corps attracts new people
Because of orders to self-quarantine, they wondered if they would even get volunteers. But as Fear said, God provided. Organizers “were astounded” to attract 108 workers. More than enough, Wells said, to take the worry out of completing everything on time.
“We actually had new volunteers this year,” Fear said, “39 new people willing to say ‘yes, I want to be a part of something like this.’”
Mission Trip Birdsboro pivoted, processing 40 applications for outdoor tasks, and set up safety protocols following the CDC and state guidelines. They planned for daily health screenings and temperature checks, outdoor meals and social distancing.
And then in late May, civil unrest prompted more concern about community spread.
“Once everyone started protesting, we said that even if we didn’t do physical work, we could still pray. We had four different prayer locations. Instead of protests, we called them ‘praytests,’’’ Fear said. Groups of volunteers, in Mission Trip Birdsboro purple t-shirts, gathered daily at a different public spot in town each time, and held devotional time, “almost like a small church service, reading scripture, offering a testimony for the day, anything – to get outside the four walls of the church.”
Those ‘praytests’ proved popular with the community and with the volunteers, as did other new practices.
“It’s cool that we learned some new things we want to keep in place, by having to try to do things differently during the pandemic,” Fear said. “We used to do devotional time at night, inside after dinner, but this time we had spiritual time outdoors at the worksites. A member of each volunteer group – we called them Lamplighters – was charged with leading devotionals or doing team-building on site. That got a lot of people involved, and when they came back (to the big tent) for dinner, they could just sit around and be together afterward. Gave people from different churches more downtime, a chance to visit.”
Members representing seven different faith communities participated this year. St. Paul’s, Birdsboro, is one of three UCC congregations which also include, St. John-Hill United Church of Christ, Boyertown, and St. Paul’s Amity United Church of Christ. Also involved were St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Birdsboro; St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Douglassville; Threefold Blessing, organized after the closing of the Birdsboro United Methodist Church; Abundant Life Church, Birdsboro; and Birdsboro Church of the Nazarene.
“We need to partner with other churches, out in the community. We believe churches should work together,” Wells said. “We worship the same Jesus; in the whole picture we share beliefs. It’s about being the body of Christ in the world. Shining your light in community ministry, to live a Christ-like life, is what we are about.”
Salute from a community leader
“The president of Birdsboro Town Council stopped by to thank the mission team for all the hard work and planning that has gone into Birdsboro,” said Natalie Aaron, a member of Abundant Life Church and chair of the photography and promo team. She noted that the councilman also offered financial support, “and told us that he and his family hope to be involved in the future. In fact, I have heard from several homeowners that they would like to help work on another home next year or provide a monetary donation so that someone else could be helped the following year. I really feel that is what a community looks like.”
MLB is a self-sustaining operation and is well funded, Wells said, by local donors and organizations. Sponsorships are personal invitations, and business sponsor information is shared publicly.
“Mission Trip Birdsboro is only a four-day event, but the love of God is planted all over Birdsboro in those four days. Our town is better because of it,” said Aaron. “I am just so proud of all the participants and the community for allowing us to come.”
“There’s great spiritual growth for those who volunteer," Wells said. "In the end, by participating and helping others, you find you have received a great gift yourself. More depth in your spirituality, and new friendships made among volunteers.”
“Even amongst a pandemic,” Fear said, “you can still show God's love and hope within your community no matter how small the gesture.”