Small Fresno congregation impacts community beyond its size
by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest
The Goliath they face in their southeast Fresno, Calif., neighborhood is huge—gang violence, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and more—but just like David in the biblical story, the small Mennonite Brethren congregation of United Faith Christian Fellowship is boldly stepping up to the challenge.
The violence hit home with force a couple of years ago when a neighborhood house was hit by gunfire in a gang altercation, part of a weekend cluster of violent incidents in the community. The home belonged to the parents of a young woman in their church family and shook up the congregation.
Under the leadership of co-pastors Jim and Yammilette Rodriguez, the church responded by holding a press conference to protest the violence and embark on a campaign for peace and justice in their community. Their Fresno city council member, the chief of police and other local officials joined them on the front steps of the church to meet the media and demonstrate solidarity in countering community violence.
For this 60-member bilingual congregation, partnerships with government agencies, nonprofit groups, businesses and caring individuals in Fresno have been the key to impacting their community on a scale far beyond their size.
Survey links violence, health issues
After the press conference, Yammilette Rodriguez helped the youth of the church, a handful of high school students, secure a grant from the California Endowment to survey the community on issues related to health. They were not surprised to find links between violence and health issues.
Among the problems the survey revealed was the above-average availability of alcohol in the area. “Crime increases in a community where there are more liquor stores,” Yammilette points out. “[Our survey] found that there were over 35 liquor stores within one mile of Roosevelt High School,” she says.
“There’s a saturation of messages about alcohol in this neighborhood,” adds Janet Saucedo, a Fresno Pacific University political science major who currently leads the youth advocacy efforts. Advertisements for alcohol are part of an environment that contributes to unhealthy choices, she explains. Changing the environment can help people make healthier choices.
“We’re a community, so we’re all responsible for the health of our community,” says Saucedo.
In addition to problems, the youth’s survey uncovered assets in their neighborhood, identifying partners who would work with them. “When we did the door knocking we found neighbors who care, who are looking out for each other,” says Yammilette. “Some will just leave the area if they feel unsafe, but we at the church want to work with our neighbors who love where they live and together do whatever we can to make it better.”
Working for a better future
The small group of high schoolers who conducted the original survey has grown to an advocacy team of a dozen students from junior high through college, along with adult advisors. They’ve chosen the name South East Neighborhood Transformation (SENT).
“What we’re working on is making our community a better place,” says Saucedo, noting that their acronym, SENT, reflects their sense of calling to this work.
Under Saucedo’s leadership the youth have continued to work with the city officials who partnered with them in the press conference. Their research and knowledge of the community make them a vital resource for a city council task force exploring ways to make Fresno’s neighborhoods healthier and safer. One concrete result of their input has been increased enforcement of city codes limiting the way alcohol is advertised in store windows.
Mobilizing the church’s youth to advocate for change in the community requires them to think far into the future, says Yammilette. “We may not see the results for 10 or 15 years,” she admits.
Along the way they celebrate the accomplishments that move them a step toward the team’s goal of a healthy community for themselves and their children. At a recent town hall meeting hosted by United Faith, 60 community people heard about the city council’s efforts to tighten alcohol and tobacco advertising restrictions. With funding from other community resources, the advocacy team has produced a video that communicates their mission.
In addition to advocating for the future, the church has formed partnerships to address immediate and tangible needs in their community. Several local grocery stores supply a weekly bread distribution. Under the leadership of assistant pastor Rene Quintanilla the church becomes a gathering place on Saturday mornings as people pick up their bread and often stay for coffee and conversation with others in the neighborhood.
According to Quintanilla, it is a way for the church to “let them know they have a place they can come to when they have problems and issues.”
Resourcing women in the community
Even prior to the community survey, the church had responded to the economic downturn with a ministry to unemployed women in the community. My Sister’s Closet is a resource for women as they seek and prepare for employment. A classroom at the church is fully stocked with quality used clothing suitable for interviews and office jobs, thanks to partnerships with women from churches and professional organizations around the city.
Twice a year My Sister’s Closet hosts a training day for job seekers with workshops on job search techniques, interview skills and resume writing. Led by women who have become businessowners and professionals themselves, the trainings offer inspiration as well as practical help.
At the end of the training, participants go home with three clothing outfits along with shoes and accessories, ready to look the part for their next job interview.
Yammilette acknowledges that with so much energy going to community needs, the church doesn’t have some of the programs other churches offer. “Our mission is to really serve the neighborhood and it’s folks who want to serve others who come to join us,” she says.
Neighborhood people as well as city and service agencies throughout Fresno and beyond have become partners with United Faith to work toward a safe and healthy community. “It takes many groups coming together for the same purpose,” says Jim Rodriguez. “At the end of the day we all want safe neighborhoods.”
Note: To see the SENT Team’s video go to http://youtu.be/PpVFuL_iifk.