Texas: Beaumont congregation skips church to serve in the community.

The article:

By Luke Blount | October 3, 2013

ENS Episcopal News Service, news@episcopalchurch.org.

Episcopal Diocese of Texas

St. Stephen’s, Beaumont, Texas, left the pews on Sunday, Sept. 29, and took over the community, volunteering for non-profit organizations for their first “Service Sunday.” More than 165 parishioners split up into nine teams, tackling projects that ranged from tending a community garden to visiting the elderly.

“It was an incredible, incredible day,” said the Rev. Nancy DeForest, Rector. “There was just so much joy and a feeling of blessedness.”

St. Stephen’s opened its doors for the regular 8 a.m. Eucharist on Sept. 29, but canceled the 10 a.m. service, encouraging everyone to take part in Service Sunday. Though many non-profit organizations are closed on Sundays, organizers worked with the local organizations to make an exception for St. Stephen’s.

With the event organized by St. Stephen’s deacon, the Rev. Pat Ritchie, volunteers could choose between several projects including feeding the homeless in the local park, making home repairs, volunteering at the humane society, and helping with meals on wheels, among other opportunities.

“This was a real different thing to do, telling people not to come to church,” Ritchie said. “I wasn’t positive if everybody would be receptive to that, or if they would just use the occasion to go to the beach. But we had great participation from our church and a great response from the community.”

There were more Service Sunday participants than the average church attendance. According to Ritchie, many of the church members had never experienced volunteer work before and have asked to repeat the event again or learn about becoming at regular volunteer. The church holds service Saturdays during Lent, but this was the first time a church service was replaced by the volunteer experience.

“One of our goals was to give a taste of volunteering to the people in our church,” Ritchie said. “I feel like this is what Jesus called us to do – go out into the world and serve. This is really making a statement both to our congregation and the community that this is something extremely important to St. Stephen’s Church.”

Each team was given a commissioning to go out and serve the community as well as some scripture and prayers. An envelope was also passed for an offering to the church. With the success of the event, St. Stephen’s plans to replicate Service Sunday next year.

Bull Sullivan Comments:

How much more glorious it would have been had they given up a day of work, or of school, or of housekeeping. If your treasure is made Monday through Friday, and the week-end is your rest, what sacrifice have you really made: leisure time, a ball game, Sunday dinner at Longhorn’s? Is the absence of these activities really a sacrifice, an offering to G-d?

Such acts are commendable, but hardly rise to the level of Christian witness and testament. After all, I can think of few societies in which helping others was unusual, even in Soviet Russia, neighbors helped neighbors. In our own American History, from the time of building cabins, to raising barns, to the horror of September 11, 2001, people have given freely of their time and treasure simply to be good neighbors.

And so, I simply ask this question: while such acts surely are beneficial and vainglorious, after all I am reading about them, are they worshipful and sacrificial in nature? There is no doubt, in my mind, that they are well intentioned, but does a “good” act glorify G-d? Does merely being a kind and giving person justify salvation?

By all means, I hope this congregation will continue in its good works, for it gives a wonderful example of how to answer the call to social justice which we hear so loudly through the New Testament, but good works without sacrifice?… even atheists are known to perform them. I believe we are called to a higher standard. Our good works must always be sacrificial in nature, worshipful in intent, and holy in practice.

Perhaps rather than other organizations making an exception for St. Stephens,  St. Stephens should make an exception for them, or would that have been too great a sacrifice? After all, how could those volunteer organizations turn down St. Stephens’ offer of help, even if it meant their volunteers had to give up their leisure time. No doubt, good was done and the help appreciated, but to what purpose?

Call on your parishioners to join together in service to G-d and man on a week day, when it is a sacrifice, when something of value is given up and thus offered to G-d as an act of worship. Perhaps fewer would attend, but G-d, and those they served, would surely know what good comes forth from those parishioner’s hearts… Matthew 15:15-20

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