Church and City Partnerships Restore Dignity through Work (Conclusion)

Grads from the Hampton Roads Work Life Network program

By Justin Lonas, reprinted from the Chalmers Center.

Part two of two. See part one here.

Many churches hesitate to partner with non-Christian or governmental agencies because they fear they won’t be allowed to speak about Jesus. However, Cheek has found the opposite to be the case. For those willing to enter into this work and be straightforward about their motivation, the opportunities to declare and demonstrate Christ’s love abound.

“We have to yield some, and they have to yield some. The city effectively advertises Work Life for us through its economic development office and connections with businesses. As the number of sites we offer has increased and our network has become stronger, we started having great success and retention. Folks at different agencies started noticing that and wondered what was causing that vs. what they were doing. And our answer was ‘It’s called God,’” Cheek said.

“People want to see you live according to the principles of the gospel – if you’re living it, at some point, they’re going to ask you about it. And that gives you an opportunity to expound on that, and they’re going to ask how they can know more, how they can get there. Like Jesus with the woman at the well.”

Many of the Work Life Network’s class facilitators are pastors or church leaders, many of who are retired and can volunteer several days per week. “It’s making a difference,” Cheek said. “The pastors and churches that participate are excited. The city government is jumping head over heels because they’re seeing people’s lives transformed, and they’re getting into the workforce – people who are coming out of incarceration or have tough issues in their backgrounds.”

Cheek said volunteers see God at work in ways they may not have seen Him before. They’re getting to disciple people and be part of something that lets them use their talents and witness the Lord changing people’s lives. Many have told him that serving in this ministry has reinvigorated their faith. “They realize, ‘I’m going to put the gospel in a context where there are people who are really hurting, and work with them solving problems of systemic poverty and other issues that go along with it – racism, classism, etc. – that don’t often get touched from the pulpit,’” Cheek said.

He tells potential volunteers, “These folks don’t cross your door-seal, but that’s who we have, and they’re going to be wanting more and more of that gospel, ready to receive God in ways that your church members don’t often, and they’re ready to act on that.”

Getting Into the Game

I asked Cheek to tell me what challenges he and the network had faced in getting this ministry underway. He laughed and said he didn’t want to sound proud, but “there were no challenges.”

“I’ve always been a community engagement and networking person. I don’t believe in ‘It can’t be done’ or ‘there are barriers to helping people,’” he said. The main barrier people run into is themselves: “When people come to me with an idea or a suggestion about something, my immediate response is, ‘You haven’t started yet. Let’s get going. What’s holding you back?’ I laugh at excuses, all I want to hear is how we’re going to get it accomplished.”

“So in that context, no, ‘there were no challenges.’ When we started thinking about jobs ministry, people were asking, ‘who’s going to do this,’ and I said, ‘I’m going start doing this, and I guarantee you in six months, you’ll be doing this yourself.’ That’s what happened, and it just kept multiplying. The snowball has kept rolling. Get people in as allies, and then get them facilitating.”

If people ask, “Why should my church or ministry get started with this?” Cheek would say, “Why not?”

“As a church, are you just an organization, or are you the church of Jesus Christ? If you are the church, you just need to get started. There are hurting people around you, and you need to engage them, instead of driving by them, to heal the community. All of us started somewhere. Someone helped us somehow in life, out of the goodness of their hearts. Sometimes we need to get past that institutional side of our congregations that makes things complicated and just go!”

Lasting Change

The best part of Work Life, Cheek says, is how the classes start from and reinforce the importance of relationships. Not only are people being transformed by God through this process, but they are also staying connected through alumni meetings. The Work Life Network has also had some graduates come back to serve as class facilitators.

Cheek said that one recent graduating class of six women formed a tight-knit group, doing activities together with their families outside of class time. “They fed off each other and encouraged each other,” he said. “On the next to the last day of class, they asked, ‘Does it have to end? Can’t we keep going?’ Because they looked forward to getting up in the morning and coming to class. As they gave their testimonies at the end, they talked about how they were able to transition their lives, and their thoughts, and their patterns, some that weren’t even religious before. They understand their purpose for work and their purpose in God’s creation.”

“What’s better than seeing someone’s joy at starting a new job and getting their lives back on track? Can we get excited about people’s joy at accomplishing something in their lives?” he asked. “God created us for work, and this work brings enjoyment not only to me but to everyone around us.”

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