A big part of ministry is being ready and willing to say “yes” to the call of the Holy Spirit. This call is often revealed in the opportunities to address the daily needs of one’s neighbors and others we encounter on the Christian journey. In Graceworks we witness God taking the willingness to say “yes” and blessing the offering of our labor. In early 2013, Grace Church, Woodlawn received a phone call from a concerned grandparent who was in need of a safe place for her preteen grandchildren, during the summer, while she was at work. After some discussion and prayer we came to see this need as an opportunity for Grace Church to share Christ’s love with others our neighborhood to whom we had not directly reached out before.
Beginning with a $2000 grant from the Diocesan Mission and Outreach department, GraceWorks ministry was created to serve children ages 10-14 years of age. The summer program would run 5 days a week for 7 weeks and was intended to provide inner city youth with opportunities to participate in service projects, educational enrichment activities and spiritual exploration. The program was open without cost to everyone of the appropriate age who completed an application and had transportation to the church. God’s abundant blessings would be shared with all campers, volunteers, and the staff beginning with daily hot breakfasts, nutritious lunches, drinks, snacks, all the tools needed for projects, and the costs covered for all activities and the Friday adventure trips.
Each of the program’s activities have been structured to nurture the whole child through positive character development, spiritual growth, artistic creativity, encouragement of career interests, and cultivation of a good work ethic. Four days a week the young participants engage in prayer, art, personal growth, workshops and attend a service of Holy Eucharist designed for their age level. The majority of the activities revolve around guided participation in community projects. Over the years GraceWorks has grown and provides each participant with the basic skill sets needed for competitive employment, cooperative team work, along with hands-on opportunities for discovering personal interests, spiritual awareness, and practical abilities that improve educational and vocational potential.
Through a simple yes God has blessed GraceWorks growth in many ways. Our staff has evolved to consist of the ministry’s graduates, AmeriCorps Vista workers along with many volunteers from different churches and the community. GraceWorks participation has increased from one child the first day to 25 campers a summer. GraceWorks has also grown in its physical location. Beginning with the original green space, the campers with mentors’ assistance have built a wheelchair accessible labyrinth, a green house, a storage building, a four-barrel rainwater catchment system and many raised garden beds.
When GraceWorks again replied with a yes, a vacant lot directly across from GraceWorks’ green space was donated, doubling our outdoor space. The lot has provided the campers the opportunity to amend soil, build an 11-barrel rain catchment system, and maintain a rod iron fence erected across the back and sides of the lot. The campers have found success in the completion of small projects that build on large long-term goals that eventually improve the larger community. Their activities speak to the teamwork and construction lessons learned as the ministry’s participant’s work to help Woodlawn neighbors address issues of food insecurity and contribute to a more productive future.
As GraceWorks presence has expanded in the neighborhood the elderly and disabled neighbors have requested assistance with yard upkeep and small home repairs. Each vested request answered with a yes has opened an avenue for the children to be mentored in demonstrating God’s love with their growing skills. Each summer the hands on activities, workshops, daily spiritual time, theme-centered Holy Eucharist service, and adventures reinforce the spiritual concept throughout the camp. Over the years the messages have grown from simple ideas about God our Creator to the presence of God in relationship with each of us and our relationships with one another. Weekly the campers are given the space and opportunities needed to apply and reinforce the spiritual knowledge shared with them. The campers are mentored in how to share Christ’s love through community activities such as repairing porches, refurbishing furniture to the building of outdoor structures and painting outdoor community murals. As the participants have enhanced neighborhoods their positive impact on the daily lives of the economically challenged residents has been noticed, respected and appreciated. As the teens respond to the needs of the elderly and the disabled residents of the community they have become a visible example of Christ’s love in action. All participants enjoy the opportunity to answer with a yes when GraceWorks is approached with a community need.
Several years ago when GraceWorks responded with yet another yes, God literally opened the doors to provide some much needed indoor physical space for the growing ministry. The yes resulted in GraceWorks accepting the donation of an abandoned church building. The old church building is directly adjacent to the green space used by GraceWorks attendees each summer for community service projects and vegetable beds. It is also located less than half a block behind the Grace Episcopal Church proper. Now unofficially known as “Grace Place,” the building is well into renovations through the efforts of parishioners of Grace Episcopal Church, St. Stephen’s, St, Luke’s, St. Mary’s on the Highlands, All-Saints, as well as a number of other churches and volunteers. Progress so far includes the framing for St. Stephen’s Love Laundry room, a kitchen, several classrooms, bathrooms and a vocational shop. The acceptance of the building has broadened GraceWorks vision from a summer youth center into a multipurpose building which will host and house a wide range of service efforts and programs for the Woodlawn neighborhood. Our hope is to eventually offer ministries such as free laundry service, after school tutoring, a warming station, and retraining the unemployed in construction skills when the summer youth program is not in session. Our plans also include a place of worship for the community. The sanctuary area will be entirely refurbished in a style consistent with the Episcopal tradition while maintaining the aesthetic of the 1920’s neo-Gothic architecture. It will be used as a chapel by the GraceWorks staff and youth and will also be made available to area faith communities in need of physical space to meet and worship.
Like so many churches and nonprofits last year we were unable to have our usual robust summer of activities due to the pandemic. Our main fund raiser was cancelled and all the food bought for the catfish picnic was donated to Community Kitchens. Although our campers could not participate last summer we were able to accept two Vista workers and a GraceWorks graduate as staff members. We also set up appointments for families and a few small youth groups to come work with us throughout the summer. While working outside and helping out Community Kitchens the GraceWorks staff saw the effects the pandemic had on the homeless. All local businesses and churches closed which left Community Kitchen’s guests with no restroom access. The GraceWorks staff saw the situation as a chance to say yes to the community. After a little research GraceWorks built a portable hand-washing station from a recycled food pantry cart. Currently the hand-washing station is accessible daily from 9am until 2:30pm to anyone walking by Community Kitchens located at Grace Church, Woodlawn.
GraceWorks has decided to say yes and have campers return this summer. We will limit our number of campers to 15. We will practice the CDC safety recommendations for outside and inside gatherings. We invite all our partners and new friends to join us in this summer’s yes as we overcome new challenges relating to the many COVID-19 health precautions. We realize sharing Christ with the children and community again will only happen through the prayers, support and generosity of our loyal partners such as the Episcopal Diocese, many of the Episcopal Churches, other faith-based organizations, community groups, local businesses and individuals. A yes can be as easy as adding GraceWorks to your prayer list, gathering up supplies, sponsoring a meal, being a volunteer for an activity, being a driver on a Friday, donating old tools,(hoes, shovels, rakes) individually wrapped snacks or drinks. Volunteers, building supplies and financial support are also always welcomed at Grace Place.
A huge Thank you and deeply felt appreciation to everyone who has walked with us and provided much needed assistance as a volunteer, with in-kind donations and financial support over the past eight years.
Yes Jesus in our play, work and growth,
Kay Williams -GraceWorks director