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This big light of mine

California program changes those who serve as well as those they serve

Pedro Menjivar poses with the Character Club.

This big light of mine
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Whenever his huge Mariners Church sent out missionaries, environmental consultant Will Gaston joined the rest of the congregation in praying for them-but he was always glad not to be one of them. He volunteered sometimes, sure, but it was what he calls "dabbling volunteering." Yet today, he dedicates his time to children on Minnie Street in Santa Ana, Calif., where gangs sometimes use fourth-graders to keep watch for police and rival gang members.

Why the change? Mariners Church's Lighthouse Community Center (LCC) unites Minnie Street with affluent Orange County areas as it equips volunteers and community leaders to meet the needs of Minnie Street residents. Fifty programs offer help for unwed moms, tutoring for children, scholarships for the college-bound, English classes for adults, and citizenship classes for immigrants. During the past year almost 700 volunteers and leaders helped 1,000 Minnie Street residents.

LCC began in 1996 when Mariners Church, now with 15,000 members and 21 outreach programs, rented three apartments on Minnie Street and began an after-school Lighthouse Learning program. "When we started there were shootouts on the streets," said Laurie Beshore of Lighthouse Ministries and Global Outreach. Hispanic and Cambodian gangs warred among broken buildings. Drugs, domestic abuse, unemployment, and crime were part of everyday life in a city that one university study ranked first in "urban hardship."

Today, LCC director Nicole Maiocco said, big problems remain: "There's always that pull of the gangs, the streets, the dropping out of school because honestly, it's just easier for them." And yet, some spiritual and material improvement has come. Five years ago, a nonprofit organization bought and refurbished several Minnie Street apartments, including the run-down apartments that housed Lighthouse Learning. The city of Santa Ana provided funding to restore the neighborhood, and now people walking down the usually quiet street see neat apartment buildings and courtyards with benches and trees.

The need for volunteers to tutor, mentor, and lead Bible studies remains great, but cultural gaps can make volunteering difficult. "We're wealthy, white, educated middle class, and they're poor, sometimes illiterate, first-generation, uneducated people," Beshore said, and then emphasized the need to serve: "All followers of Christ are called to care for the hurt and the lost and the poor. . . . It's simply being who Christ called us to be, simply extending His love and care to the people in our community."

Gaston absorbed that message, and also the Mariners Church emphasis on service as a two-way street-it changes those who serve as well as those they serve. Gaston for many years resisted any long-term volunteer commitments, but his perspective changed when he went on a mission trip to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. He decided to help with the LCC immigration clinic and a year ago joined the LCC advisory team.

Then, he decided he should tutor so he could learn more about the ministry he was advising. He has no children and said the idea of entering a room full of screeching kids intimidated him: "I figured they would probably tie us to a chair and hold us hostage." His first day of tutoring was "noisy and kind of chaotic. It was like a controlled burn"-but he put on a nametag and soon the kids were calling "Mr. Will" for help. This put him at ease, and he began to feel that he had a reason for being there.

Now he stops to talk to Deysi, a 14-year-old he loves for her odd, quirky style. He gives her quarters for her laundry and reflects on that transformation: "You're just doing generic volunteering and the next minute you're connected to people." When Gaston, a bass player, found out that Deysi played the bass and the violin, he asked if he and his wife could come to her recital. When he told his small group about it they came too, bringing Deysi the first bouquet of flowers she had ever received. Pedro Menjivar, a soft-spoken physical therapist, said that he started volunteering when he wanted to grow closer to God. This was seven years ago-"I got hooked." Menjivar takes kids on field trips, leads a Character Club for the elementary-age children, mentors three boys, and directed a weekend Kid's Camp. Minnie Street kids have grown up under Menjivar's watch, and he has become like an older brother to the teens he mentors.

Menjivar said that for him, volunteering means "learning to depend on God, stepping out, doing things that I wouldn't think I was capable of." Volunteering has shown him the value of faithfulness: "I don't think I do anything special. The one thing I do is show up every week."

People who show up every week build relationships that bridge the cultural gap, according to Bob Skiles, a member of the center's advisory team: "You forget it's a rich white person dealing with a Hispanic child. It's two people in a relationship. As you get to know each other and form a relationship, those differences are no longer important." Beshore said, "As you just care for them, they open the door. They were so hungry. We had kids who just showed up at the door saying, 'I heard you'll tell me about Jesus.'"

Some of those kids now work at the center. Lola Rodriguez, 20, grew up on Minnie Street. She started coming to the center six years ago and now works in LCC's computer lab: She's thankful for "people who see you going the wrong way and just want to turn you around." When Rodriguez became pregnant with her son, the people at the center were "always there to help me," so now she wants to help others. Rodriguez helps lead Club Mom, a ministry that equips other teenage moms. She wants to return to high school and become a social worker. She now professes faith in Christ. LCC, working to expand the scope of its ministry, is partnering with another organization to found two more community centers in 2008. The goal is to provide more help for pregnant teens, offer immigration services, work on gang prevention, and improve health, nutrition, and school readiness.

Skiles says that when LCC began, kids could not tell him what they wanted to be when they grew up: "The kids didn't have any idea of a future. We're looking at a neighborhood that was guns, gangs, and graffiti, and kids weren't sure they were going to grow up." Now people like Rodriguez have a vision for their lives, and Skiles has noticed that these visions have a common theme: "They want to be teachers. They want to be social workers. They want to be nurses. It's all involved with helping people."

Alisa Harris Alisa is a WORLD Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD reporter.


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