“My Job is to Notice”: Connecting church, city and community

The Van Raalte Fellowship is a new partnership between Western Theological Seminary, 3sixty ministries (a community development non-profit), Pillar Church, and All Saints Anglican Church. The two-year fellowship allows students to earn internship credit, participate in a mentored peer group, and worship with Pillar Church and All Saints Anglican Church while helping to connect the church with opportunities for justice in the city of Holland.

Three of this year’s Van Raalte Fellows are first-year seminary students Alisha Riepma, Katie Alley, and Leah Wielenga.

A week in the life of a Van Raalte Fellow involves attending classes at WTS, meeting in a peer group and individually with Rev. Jenna Brandsen ‘15, pastor of formation for mission at Pillar Church, and having lots of conversations with community members and neighbors. At least once a week, the fellows eat at the Community Kitchen at WTS. On Sundays, they work as interns at Pillar Church, and Katie helps with the children’s ministry. They can also attend morning and evening prayers at All Saints Anglican Church throughout the week.

Every other Sunday, the fellows host dinner at Alisha’s house, inviting members of the Holland community to eat with them. Recently they were joined by two Holland police officers and got to hear about their experience in the city. Another evening, they invited a student who lives at the Friendship House to talk about intentional communities at the seminary. Soon they hope to invite a woman who has her MSW and is living in low-income housing doing grassroots social work in Holland.

Their goal is “to live outward-focused lives.” An important focus of the internship is living right in the neighborhood they serve. Each week they walk through the city and pray to have conversations with their neighbors.

“Something has changed within me to expect conversations with people, to seek out those conversations, and to find ways that I can really know my neighbors,” shares Leah.

One of these conversations happened when Leah noticed a neighbor sweeping up a broken bottle on the sidewalk. She stopped to chat and he explained that when underage drinkers don’t want to get caught with an open container, they throw it out of their car. In the past year, three neighborhood dogs had to be put down because of serious infections in their cut paws.

She quickly discovered that her new friend, Ed, was the neighborhood go-to-guy. He pointed out who lived where and shared that he used to make pots of coffee for the police officers and firemen in the area who would come and chat in his driveway. One time, he helped a woman who was being harassed. He already knew the police were looking for a suspect who had harassed other women, so he was able to put her in contact with them to help catch the guy.

“Community development is not about always having big plans and big goals,” explains Leah. “It’s about knowing what matters to people and knowing what people have to offer and care to invest.”

The fellows’ goal is to connect people to their communities and specifically to help the church connect to the city in a real, meaningful way.

“It’s like there are underground cords connecting people already, but they just don’t know they’re there. It’s our job to unearth them,” Leah shares.

Alisha Riepma

Alisha Riepma

Katie Alley

Katie Alley

Leah Wielenga

Leah Wielenga

One way Katie gets to know her neighborhood is by walking everywhere she goes and shopping at the stores closest to her home. That way she makes sure her mind is always focused on who the people are around her.

This internship has caused Katie to form friendships with neighbors like the greeters at her local Meijer store, the workers at Kilwins where she gets a weekly ice cream cone, and her mailman.

“Being in an internship that says, ‘your job is to notice’ has changed my mindset to recognize that these are members of my community who are often overlooked, they are my neighbors, and I benefit from their work, so I want to know them,” she explains.

Alisha has noticed that topics from her classes at WTS spill over into her life as a Van Raalte Fellow. Whether at church or in a conversation at the Community Kitchen, she has “a good theological framework.”

For Katie, the internship has stripped away a lot of preconceived notions about people and has caused her to ask different questions in class.

Because the fellowship is so new, there is a lot of openness and flexibility for the fellows to explore different passions. Katie has developed a passion for one-on-one connections that have led her to pursue chaplaincy. She is working with Jenna to visit shut-ins through Pillar Church. Leah is realizing that it is easy for her to connect with people who are more “rough around the edges.” She hopes to use her passion for drama and improv to plan some improv workshops in the community. Alisha is thinking deeply about what church could look like with a more community-oriented mindset.

Katie recommends the internship for students who feel called but don’t know what they want to do yet, because it allows the chance to converse with lots of different people and be involved in different types of ministry.

“The leadership has been really excellent. I feel like we are learning from people who genuinely care about us, and the city, and the church,” Katie shares.

Above all, the fellows are humbled by the work God is already doing in the city of Holland.

“It’s so easy to think I’m going to bring Jesus into the Community Kitchen, and then I’ve been so surprised and proven wrong that Jesus is already there,” shares Katie. “Every time we sit and eat with some new friends, I think, ‘maybe this person doesn’t know the Lord,’ but then we start having conversations and they know more about the Bible than we do! Or they invite us to church! It’s like a really beautiful un-learning of things, where God keeps showing me where I’ve been wrong the whole time. It’s been exciting and so humbling.”

“It’s not enjoyable in the moment to be wrong,” agrees Alisha,“But later it’s enjoyable to know that God is so much bigger than what I perceive things to be, and He’s at work everywhere and in ways more expansive than I imagine.”

 

 

Check out the Housing page for more info about the Van Raalte Fellowship.