When Dinuba (California) Chamber of Commerce CEO and president Heathe Jones asked New Life Community pastor Mark Isaac to come to the Chamber, she assumed Isaac might think something was wrong.
To be fair, Jones had been crying. But they were happy tears after delivering balloons to Chamber award recipients.
“By the time we got to NLC, my face was all splotchy and swollen,” Jones says. “(Mark) brought me a Sonic slushy to cheer me up because he thought something was wrong.”
Instead, Isaac received a handful of balloons to recognize New Life Community as the Chamber’s first Non-Profit of the Year award winner, a testament to a significant shift in NLC’s vision toward community transformational ministries.
“I found it hard not to cry in the moment,” Isaac says. “For me, it was just a huge affirmation of the hard work, the prayer, the challenges and the difficulties of trying to turn the church around to be a community focused congregation.”
NLC has shifted its focus toward meeting spiritual, financial, emotional and physical needs in the community.
“Our mission is to transform lives through Jesus,” says NLC community strategist Cece Olea, a recipient of the Tulare County District 4 Women of the Year award for her leadership. “How do we do that? Through servant leadership and community partnership.”
According to census data, 26.4 percent of Dinubians are living in poverty, more than double the national poverty rate. The average household income in Dinuba is $44,000, Isaac says, and statistics show that a majority of families with incomes below $50,000 experienced significant financial loss during the pandemic.
NLC’s community ministries include a Bible study at the Open Gate Ministries homeless shelter across the street, life skills classes for women, a Faith and Finance class for low-income families, GriefShare, ACE Overcomers to help people with adverse childhood experiences and an anticipated summer Celebrate Recovery group to help people overcome “habits, hurts and hangups.” NLC is also seeking to pray over every house in Dinuba.
“COVID-19 helped us see our community with new eyes and respond with a new sense of urgency,” Isaac says. “It ‘popped our bubble’ of isolated privilege and ‘blessing’ amongst a community of suffering and despair.”
To address physical needs, NLC began serving 250 hot meals every last Sunday of the month and taking meals to homeless camps. NLC works in partnership with the Chamber, Dinuba High School student clubs and The Parenting Network-Dinuba Family Resource Center, which volunteers and promotes the meals as an opportunity for families to foster relationships. NLC served about 2,700 meals in 2021.
Through its partnership with Open Gate, NLC has developed a Home Resource Center (HRC) to meet the furniture needs of families leaving the homeless shelter. The HRC also serves through CarePortal, which helps meet needs of vulnerable children and families. In Tulare County in 2020, CarePortal recorded 7,249 reports of abuse or neglect and 1,519 children in foster care.
The HRC provides a welcome basket with cleaning supplies, linens and Bible stories, and the Parenting Network provides bags of nonperishable groceries. As the family allows, NLC maintains contact. Through the end of February, the HRC had served 20 families since it began in 2021.
With a surplus of furniture at the HRC, NLC began reaching out to community agencies such as the fire department, police department, other churches and The Parenting Network, asking for referrals and partnership.
A mid-February project illustrates this partnership. When the police department identified a family in need, NLC investigated and discovered a need for more than furniture with a house in disrepair.
The situation involved drugs and abuse, and the children had been taken from the home—including a pregnant eighth grader—and the mother was in jail, but the grandmother remained at the residence.
With the Chamber’s support, representatives from NLC, the fire and police departments, City of Dinuba, Public Works and other churches cleaned and repaired the house. The fire department tore down an unauthorized room and installed smoke detectors. Public Works addressed plumbing issues, while the city dealt with mold. Dinuba Lumber donated a toilet, which Isaac installed.
“To me, working alongside them, not in judgment, not in, ‘You have to come to my church,’ but us being the embodiment of Christ, that’s what’s going to bring them in,” Olea says. “That’s what’s going to (cause) them to want more of this Jesus that we have.”
Chamber CEO Jones views the project as a possible catalyst for the mobilization of the Dinuba Community Task Force. Jones first became acquainted with NLC through a task force meeting held at the church and has since started attending NLC.
“That was a realization when we were there working with the city, hand in hand,” Jones says of the project. “Senior citizens (and) kids working hand in hand. Cece with a broom. Mark fixing a toilet. To me, that’s a task force.”
Snowball is rolling
The process of moving the congregation toward community transformation spans a generation. Chris Reimche, president of the NLC board of trustees, has observed the process unfold as a member of executive leadership for more than a decade. The executive team recognized a need for a system allowing for visionary activity, says Reimche, who served as church moderator prior to a change in government structure.
“We started by changing some of those basic structures that had been in place in order to facilitate a focus towards outward ministries,” Reimche says. “In Scripture, let the simple things be the simple things. It’s ‘Love God and love people.’”
When Isaac arrived at NLC in 2018, the congregation was talking about transformation and asking what the community would miss if the church did not exist.
“The answers we had were troubling—they’d miss the Mennonite church,” Isaac says “Honestly, it wasn’t about the gospel, it wasn’t about Jesus, it wasn’t about helping anybody, it was just about being Mennonite.”
From fall 2018 to fall 2019, Isaac, Reimche and three others drafted a new vision plan. Phase 1 was “Imagine2024.” The congregation approved the plan in November 2019, launching “Implement2024” with five objectives to shift the church toward community transformational ministries.
Integral in this process was hiring Olea, who is pursuing master’s degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy and Ministry Leadership and Culture at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, in March 2020.
“The seminary is actually teaching this very same stuff that we’re doing,” Isaac says.
Now that NLC’s vision plan is in place, Isaac says a new team is refreshing the implementation for Phase 3, “IntoFocus2024.”
“That snowball we’ve been pushing has gotten bigger and now it’s rolling on its own,” Isaac says. “If we ever said as a church, ‘I don’t know if we think we can make it anymore, we may want to close up shop,’ we’d have the community arriving with pitchforks standing out there saying don’t you dare shut down.”
Asked what advice he would give to other churches interested in shifting vision outward, Isaac recommends first talking with Olea and then recognizing it is worth the risk.
A transformational vision
Isaac and Olea accepted the Non-Profit of the Year award at the Chamber award ceremony Feb. 18. Armando Villarreal, program manager of The Parenting Network, was a member of the voting committee that selected NLC.
“Throughout the year, the community of Dinuba, along with myself, have observed NLC not only make a strong commitment to sharing the wonders of faith, spirituality, Christ and God, but also show humble servitude to the community,” Villarreal says.
Jones, too, has witnessed NLC’s community focus.
“It’s funny because when people ask me, ‘What is the one thing that made (NLC) stand out,’ it’s like, ‘What didn’t make them stand out?’” Jones says. “They’re everywhere, so it’s hard for them not to stand out when they’re mobilized in such a community-focused way.”
The vision is affecting people at NLC, too.
“We’re seeing transformation in our members,” Olea says. “It’s not just our community. That inspires me. We were obedient to what God was calling us to do and we get these awards, not because we set out to do that, but because God is just good like that.”
Janae Rempel is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Rempel is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Rempel graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She attends Hillsboro MB Church.