M ary Kohlsdorf had barely begun her full-time role as Director of Outreach at The Ridge Church in Ankeny, Iowa, when COVID-19 changed everything.
Only a few months prior, she had been managing both spiritual formation and outreach ministries at The Ridge. Then, when the opportunity arose to lead outreach full time, she took it. In her new role, she planned to continue the same outreach programs the church had been running for the last several years: summer mission trips to Ghana and Uganda, providing lunches to local school children during the summer, and supporting local mission opportunities with a grant for which church members could apply. But all of that ground to a halt with the sudden onset of social distancing and travel restrictions.
“It happened immediately,” Kohlsdorf said of the changes brought on by the pandemic. “Even the first week of COVID when everything started shutting down, and people started losing their jobs [in] the first three to four weeks, we were just wondering, what are the needs? They weren’t coming directly to us, and I started calling people in the community.”
In search of unmet needs in the community, Kohlsdorf phoned city hall, the police department, and multiple apartment complexes. Several of those complexes were home to older adults with restricted income, and who were suddenly fearful of leaving home. Seeing an opportunity, Kohlsdorf offered to provide residents with a free grocery shopping service, supported by volunteers from the church. Three of the apartment complexes took them up on it immediately, including Penelope 38 Apartments.
Of the 55 residents at Penelope 38 Apartments, six to eight utilized the grocery shopping service at any given time throughout the spring and summer. Carol Gutierrez, the property manager for the community, received feedback about the service from the residents.
“They love it,” said Gutierrez. “It was a lifesaver for a lot of them. Many were afraid to get out. Some due to physical disabilities were unable to get out. You know, it’s been wonderful.”
Finding the ingredients for fellowship
Of the eight volunteers from The Ridge providing grocery shopping services, Lori McCann may have been the least likely. She hated grocery shopping, for one thing. But, more significantly, she was still grieving the recent death of her father. But when Kohlsdorf reached out with an opportunity to serve, McCann trusted that God would provide.
“I thought, well, this is going to stretch me,” McCann said. “And God’s going to use me if I choose to do this, because I know he will turn it into something good.”
McCann responded to Kohlsdorf indicating she’d like to join the grocery shoppers. She shared that she saw it as an opportunity not only to give, but to receive from God in a season marked by loss.
“When [Lori] heard that we needed people to grocery shop, she responded and said, ‘I want to serve. I need some purpose in this season, because I just have to know that God still has purpose for me, even though I feel like everything has been lost,’” Kohlsdorf recalls.
McCann began grocery shopping for three women living in the Penelope 38 Apartments. When she couldn’t find a product, she was encouraged to call the residents to ask about alternatives. Often these conversations became about more than just missing items.
“It went from not finding an item on the list to just listening to what was going on in their life, and just being a listener to them,” said McCann. “God made women to fellowship, and they were just hungry to fellowship. And it went on from there, like sewing projects they were doing, someone was ill in their family, someone was waiting to have cataract surgery so she wasn’t able to drive.”
One of the residents also shared her love of baking with McCann. The resident told McCann how she missed baking and decorating cakes, and added particular ingredients to her grocery list to make baking possible.
“She would send me pictures [of cakes] she was attempting to decorate,” said McCann. “And she felt so bad because her eyesight was not as accurate as she wanted it to be. I thought they were beautiful; they were very intricate.”
One evening in the summer, McCann fell off her bike while on a ride with her husband. She didn’t sustain any significant injuries, but was still sore the following day when she went to pick up the grocery lists. When she arrived, Gutierrez, the property manager, asked her to wait—there was a cake in the office for her, made by a resident. Without knowing it, McCann had been grocery shopping for ingredients that would become the cake she received on a day she most needed it.
“[The resident] had baked me a cake, and not knowing that I had fallen or just needed something for me today,” said McCann. “She had thanked me for shopping for her and I know that God was in all of this. His timing, just to remind me that he knew I fell, and he knew my heart was broken from my dad, and this woman is still bringing joy to me.”
Meet your neighbor, bless the neighborhood
The Ridge canceled its international mission trips but continued to provide financial support for their mission partners. At the same time, they got very focused on their local community in Ankeny. Grocery shopping was just one of the approaches they took. Volunteers also packed lunches for a local homeless shelter during a power outage. A “Generosity Task Force,” comprised of members with significant resources, paid off several overdue bills for families attending a local daycare. And after contacting people in the church’s database who the staff hadn’t seen in worship in a while, the church uncovered opportunities to pay for one family’s rent and another family’s car repairs.
And it went even further. Kohlsdorf created a series of summer activities to encourage members to connect with their neighbors throughout Ankeny, an initiative she called “Won’t You Meet Your Neighbor?” Some of these activities were as simple as encouraging members to spend time in the front yard rather than the backyard, the better to greet their neighbors, or a magnet to place on the refrigerator and record neighbors’ names for prayer. The church also sponsored an ice cream truck to bring free ice cream to nine neighborhoods throughout town, as well as to Penelope 38 Apartments.
While Kohlsdorf brought her own energy to the new initiatives, she was also inspired by a conference she attended last year whose mission statement stuck with her: Good works, good will, good news.
“Their philosophy is if you do good work in your community, it creates good will toward the church, and then gives us the opportunity to share the good news, in that order,” said Kohlsdorf. “That has resonated with me since I went to that conference last October. But I didn’t really get to pivot and live that out, and have our church live that out, until COVID hit.”
The opportunity to live out a mission of goodwill in the community has changed how Kohlsdorf thinks about outreach and the role she stepped into this spring.
“We’re thinking more, how can we get out of the church and into the community, and just bless people with zero agenda?” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you go here or not, or even believe in God or not, we just want you to know we’re here for our community, whatever that looks like.”
This article was also published in RCA Today, the Reformed Church in America’s denominational magazine.
Natalia Connelly is a student at Western Theological Seminary and a chaplain resident at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan.