Raya (neighbor) Mission Week: Church reaches out to its community
September 12, 2022
The story of Raya Mission Week at Hampden Highlands UMC in Hampden, ME, is a story about connections.
The connection between two United Methodist congregations 600 miles apart, the connection of a church to its community, and of congregation members connecting with the scriptural commandment to love our neighbors.
For the mission, the church would accept applications from individuals and nonprofits in the community needing assistance, and, during one week, volunteers would do the various projects “completely free of charge [supported] with funds raised by the church and simply to be an act of love,” said Rev. Spencer Shaw.
From Aug. 8 to 12, 2022, volunteers completed 24 projects – nine more than the number of original applications. Work included rebuilding a deck, repairing stairs, stacking firewood, and at the Hampden Neighborhood Food Cupboard, moving some freezers and other work.
But this week-long, locally grounded mission project began a nearly a year before and a few states away.
Hampden Highlands member Kelly Santiago’s daughter attends First UMC in Williamsport, PA. For nine years, that church has done a similar ministry under the name Transform.
In 2021, Santiago participated in Transform. “I loved it!” she said. “New skills were learned (my daughter learned how to use a chainsaw), friends were made, and hope was given to those who were served.”
“For a long time, I have wanted to do something that would involve the entire church: children, youth and adults all working together towards a common goal grounded in scripture,” Santiago said, “something that would bring scripture to life in our everyday living.”
She thought a version of Transform could be it, and brought the idea to Rev. Shaw.
“We just started to talk about it and pray about it,” he said, and though they set it aside for a time, “it just kept coming back to both of us. And we believe that the Holy Spirit was kind of stirring something within us to maybe give this a closer look.”
They brought it to the Administrative Council, which approved moving forward, and then sought the support of the congregation.
While there was enthusiasm, there were also some concerns about taking on a project of this scope:
Could they handle the projects?
Could they find the funds?
Does a relatively affluent community like Hampden really need this? Will it make a difference?
Turns out, the answer to all those questions was a resounding yes.
Rev. Shaw said the organizing team wanted to build the mission on a firm biblical foundation.
“We spent some time in Bible study and in prayer thinking about ‘what does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves in practical ways?’” he said. “Love is a word that we throw around often, but what does that look like in Hampden, Maine, for anybody — regardless of whether they have any affiliation with our church.”
The word raya is found in the Old Testament meaning neighbor. With the name Raya Mission selected, they were “off to the races,” Rev. Shaw said, and began working on raising the necessary funds.
Based on Transform’s example, the church set a “lofty” goal of raising $10,000.
The church began by hosting movie nights; they received an early donation of $1,000 that not only helped the bottom line, but also inspired confidence that the goal was achievable, Rev. Shaw said.
To keep the momentum going, Rev. Shaw and long-time church member Dorna Thomas agreed they would eat chocolate covered crickets on a Sunday morning if they made the next milestone of $3,000. It was quickly reached (Rev. Shaw said he thinks his wife was among the contributors).
“Not bad, actually,” he said of the crickets. “I wouldn't say that I crave one now, but they weren't bad.”
The church ended up raising $11,000 with help from a $5,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation.
“We completely met our fundraising goal with plenty of time to spare (around May),” Rev. Shaw said. “That was a huge boost in morale.”
“I have to say God was in the mission,” Santiago said. “Every time we were discouraged, something would come along to bring us back up and moving forward.”
The next step was for organizers to consider what types of projects they would take on to ensure they had the skills to complete the work and that the tasks did not involve undue safety or liability risks. For example, they would not do any roofing projects.
There would be no cost to the applicants. Their only obligation was to be onsite while the work was done and to make a bathroom available to the volunteers.
In late June, the church was ready to accept applications for work projects. They had hosted a dinner with community leaders to get the word out about the mission week. Area leaders responded with enthusiasm, and information was shared through the town Facebook page and other channels.
“And we were so grateful for that because we do want to develop better relationships and partnerships with other groups within our town,” Rev. Shaw said.
Once the applications were in, team leaders were assigned and did an advance assessment of the actual work sites to ensure the projects could be completed.
Then it was time to head out to work.
A team at the church made breakfast and lunch for the work teams each day, while older children helped make cards and baked goods and harvested produce and flowers from the church garden.
For the very youngest children, the church provided nursery care with games and movies so parents – including Rev. Shaw and his wife – could participate in the mission week.
Seven members from the Williamsport church came to Hampden to join in the work and offer guidance.
“Every homeowner we helped expressed that this gave them a new feeling of hope,” Santiago said.
The positive response, Rev. Shaw said, was “not even just from the homeowners and non-profits, but also with other people who noticed that something was going on throughout the week.”
Rev. Shaw said church members are still “on cloud nine” over the mission’s success. They will enjoy that euphoria a bit longer, he said, then meet to do a critical analysis of how Raya Mission Week might be improved going forward.
Some Hampden Highlands members may also travel to Williamsport next year to be part of Transform’s 10th anniversary mission. “We're looking forward to further developing that relationship with them because we want to live into our connectional identity,” he said.
Back home, it seems those connections have been strengthened by Raya Mission Week.
“[People were] just really pleased to hear that that this church, that's been around since 1795, was trying to go outside its walls and do what the church should be doing,” Rev. Shaw said.
“One homeowner commented that she was impressed that we didn’t come with Bibles in hand ready to preach to her,” Santiago said. “What she didn’t know is we were preaching the whole time only with actions and not words.”