Congregations who participated in the first Communities of Hope training learned finding out what they had in common proved more important than figuring out their differences.
Churches and their representatives from Atlantic City, Long Branch and Atlantic Highlands celebrated completion of a six month community development training with a commissioning on Jan. 9. The intensive training taught them how to transform their respective communities by identifying assets, building alliances and developing an action plan.
Suzanne Thomas, the leader of the Atlantic Highlands UMC team, is a Highlands resident. She and her team founded the Highlands Community of Hope for a community that was devastated during Superstorm Sandy.
“We were worried about committing to such a big project,” Thomas said. “Once you go to the training you realize the connection of the larger United Methodist Church. It makes a difference. The community that we created with the teams from Long Branch and Atlantic City was important to the process. I looked forward to brainstorming and learning with them. I can’t wait to see how their plans progress over the next year.”
The Highlands Community of Hope has a vision that sees the small borough as a community of opportunity, prosperity and wholeness. The mission is to build a coalition of groups and partners that will join to create programs and activities that foster a healthy community.
The team of seven from Highlands came into the program with an idea of what it wanted to achieve. However, the group quickly realized it needed to listen to the people in the community to find out what was needed rather than do what the congregation felt was needed.
Working with a newly elected town council member, the Highlands team created an electronic survey and distributed it to residents. The team found issues clustered in three areas: on-going flooding, community and youth services and town communications. A town-wide meeting is planned for later in February to discuss the findings with leaders and partners and put action plans into place.
Three congregations in Atlantic City joined together to make one Community of Hope team. Its plan calls for addressing low income housing needs. The team used a drone to take aerial footage of neighborhoods in need to use when working with community leaders.
The team from St. Luke’s UMC in Long Branch focused on young people. Working together with local business owners, it identified it can offer internships so young people can have more opportunities for employment.
Jill Hubbard Smith, pastor at Atlantic Highlands UMC, said the work inspires a congregation to rededicate itself to mission.
“We are working with the Community YMCA, the superintendent of schools, the borough council and more,” she said. “Our members know now that our work has meaning to others.”
Nicole Caldwell Gross, GNJ’s Director of Mission and Multi-Cultural Ministries, led the program and met with each team throughout the training period. She was thrilled with the work accomplished.
“These congregations came armed only with the knowledge that they lived and served in communities with great need,” she said. “They looked hard at their congregations and communities and asked themselves, ‘What assets do we have to make the change we need to make?’
“Their answers are a powerful witness to the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Bishop John Schol, Director of Connectional Ministries Hector Burgos, A Future With Hope Board Member Patricia Morton and A Future With Hope Executive Director Bobbie Ridgely also joined the congregational teams in worship and charged them to enact their plans in God’s name.