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SOAR ripples across Santa Cruz

By Myra Holmes

Perhaps it’s a small thing in the grand scheme of things: A team of about 30 youth from California’s Central Valley served on a short-term, nine-day mission experience in nearby Santa Cruz, Calif. They didn’t even have to hop on a plane or secure passports to get there. Their work involved small efforts, like weeding, painting and praying. Not exactly world-changing stuff.

But little pebbles make big ripples.

“Small things make huge impact,” says Marcus Vidal, youth pastor at Rosedale Bible Church, Bakersfield, Calif., and SOAR Santa Cruz participant.

Community of deep contrasts

MB Mission staff led the team of youth and adult leaders from Rosedale and Shafter (Calif.) MB Church in serving Shorelife Community Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in the Santa Cruz area, April 7-15. SOAR is MB Mission’s 10-day short-term, multigenerational program with trips based in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. According to Mark Thompson, MB Mission’s short-term mobilizer, SOAR opportunities aim to develop missional vision closer to home, while still making an impact on “least-reached” areas.

And despite its beach resort reputation, Santa Cruz is a community in need of the love of Christ. Shorelife pastor Trevor Lee describes the prevailing mindset as very “spiritual,” but notes, “Spiritual doesn’t mean Christ-like.” Only a very small slice of the population—less than 4 percent, according to one estimate—would claim a Christian faith other than Catholic.

In the community surrounding the Shorelife congregation, that spiritual darkness is compounded by a sense of self-sufficiency and complacency born of affluence. And yet, homelessness and deep physical and mental health needs are also present, making for a community of deep contrasts.

“Here we are in paradise, but it’s not a paradise for so many,” says Lee. It is a difficult place to be the church, and Shorelife is small—only about 25 families. Yet the Shorelife congregation faithfully works to spread the love of Jesus in this unique community.

Giving a lift to church’s ministry

Projects for the SOAR team were designed to give Shorelife’s ministry a lift. John Ahlum, Shorelife’s associate pastor, says they chose projects by considering: “How can we generously bring the love and presence of Christ?” They especially targeted places in which the community members and families gather.

The team picked up trash on the beach, pulled weeds at the middle school, painted a city building and distributed sack lunches to the homeless downtown. They also prayed as they walked the neighborhood and passed out invitations to a community BBQ at the church—the “apex” of the mission, attended by an estimated 150 from the church and community.  That final event was clearly a highlight, full of life, joy and “buzz,” says Thompson. “It just felt like the presence of God was there.”

Small pebbles. But Shorelife’s Ahlum is convinced that those small acts of love will make a difference in their community. “The love of Christ never comes back empty,” he says.

Some ripples are already evident, like positive conversations with middle school staff and city workers who saw the team at work. And like good connections made at the BBQ. “We started something that could help that church grow,” says Vidal.

More ripples can be seen in the relationships formed between the three churches involved. Since Shafter and Rosedale youth served together on the SOAR team, they learned to know those from another church. At first, getting the students to mingle required a bit of encouragement, but by the end of SOAR, new friendships were forming.

New motivation for working together

The experience has rekindled an interest in working together for the two MB churches, which are located only about 15 minutes apart. Both youth pastors talk about doing a summer youth event together.

Connections with Shorelife are likely to continue as well. Shafter MB sent a team to Shorelife for SOAR Santa Cruz in 2013, and Shafter MB youth pastor Brent Cummings was part of the impetus to go back this year. Cummings had appreciated the way Lee loved on his team and had seen the need in the Santa Cruz community. So as he worked with Thompson to plan a spring break mission trip for the Shafter youth group, Cummings knew Shorelife would be a great place to consider.

Cummings sees this SOAR trip as building on the 2013 trip—“continuing the story”—and hopes that Shafter MB youth might go back for a weekend or that Lee might share at Shafter MB. Rosedale’s Vidal is likewise making a point to regularly have conversations with Lee and Ahlum and says the Rosedale youth who participated now have a personal interest in the ministry of Shorelife.

For Shorelife’s part, Lee says he’d welcome the team back tomorrow. Although keeping up with hardworking youth had its challenges, it was encouraging to have other churches partner in Shorelife’s ministry. “We’re a small church, so we can’t do mission away from home, but we have a really big mission field on our doorstep,” Lee says. “So the more people who can work with us, the merrier.”

For more about how one young leader was impacted by her experiences with MB Mission read this interview with SOAR Santa Cruz intern Alondra Chavez of New Hope MB Church, Grants Pass, Oregon. Chavez is a student at Fresno Pacific University, the Mennonite Brethren-owned university in Fresno, California. 

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