By Christine H.
Christine is a dear friend of the Philip Center staff and was one of the founding leaders of Summer OFF—the idea was born out of her prayers and conversations with a few other families from Godspeed Church. Over the coming week, Christine will be sharing some reflections on the beginnings of Summer OFF and the role it has played in her own life.
When I reflect on the impact that the ministry called Summer OFF has had on my life, I envision something that looks like lemonade and cookies that God has transformed into a fantastic banquet. The ministry that God has used for His glory to introduce the gospel to children and their families in the parks of Providence, bring the church together through gospel-centered service, and plant a new church in the city, came out of a very small vision.
I have a confession to make. I’m amazed at all He had in mind when we set out to “do something ministry-wise” together as a family in the summer of 2009. I had a somewhat “adorable” idea when I prayed about what God would have for us that summer. Backyard Bible clubs, in which families invited neighboring children to their yards in the summer for mini VBS times where kids could gather for refreshments, games, and stories in order to love their neighbors and share the gospel, were starting to pop up in Christian circles. That sounded like a worthy idea to me. My kids could get outside of themselves and be little missionaries in their own backyard!
I had no idea that God was interested in broadening that “cute” small suburban vision to greater things. He had in mind things like ministry to an urban community in South Providence, building us together as a family, and to teaching us how to come to the table in community as God’s dwelling place.
I love a quote from Paul David Tripp which says, “Community means inclusion. In Christ, we are not only included into God and what He is doing but we become part of the people of God throughout history and in every corner of the world. We are God’s possession. He has included us, who were once separate, strangers to His promises, aliens. By His glory and goodness, we have been brought into His new community of faith. As you grow, you help others grow. As others grow, they help you grow. We grow together.”
As I look back and marvel, I can see that Summer OFF is one of the ways that He taught us how He works in community.
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When we heard that Faith and Hope Baptist Church was considering doing a Bible club at a neighborhood park in South Providence, we barely hesitated before offering to help. It turned out the city was continuing the free lunch program to the children and it appeared to be a fun way of reaching out to those who the Master may be inviting to the feast. I thought, “How cool would it be if together with our kids, we could be the hands and feet of Christ?”
It’s energizing for me to think of creative ways to present stories to kids, so when it came to organizing crafts, costuming up for skits or any other VBS style presentation, I am truly in my element. We’d been doing VBS for years, so it was an exciting task to pack a bunch of goods in our car and head over to Dexter Park with the hope that some kids might want to come and play with us. I believe He heard my prayers for our family, because we genuinely enjoyed serving and loving on those kids we met in the park that first week. It turned out, this was different than serving the traditional, church-centered VBS we were accustomed to, so we needed to make some adjustments.
Communication was a little challenging at first, but we were not about to let language be a barrier. The kids seemed more receptive to us than we expected. They were timid at first, but in all, seemed eager for attention and someone to play with. Our kids moved out cautiously as well. But then, knowing they had a goal of showing the love of Christ, they spoke the universal language of love, smiled, swung around on the monkey bars a few times, and called out to the children to play. Dana grabbed the attention of some boys with a few rowdy games in the grass, and a folding table with some simple crafts brought a few more kids over to the big tree. Pastor Bill’s portable puppet theater, meanwhile, had time to be set up to tell the gospel message to a small group of waiting children sitting on blankets.
At the end of the week, we were mystified when the growing group of children asked if we were returning the following week. This was the original Summer OFF scene as we remember. I am stunned by the goodness of God and the faithfulness of so many, young and old, who have spent hours planning and then loaded their cars with bins, balls, folding tables and thermos’ day after day and year after year. They dirtied their hands with paint, glitter, sweat, nail polish, watermelon juice and tears; sitting and speaking, playing and laughing, all to carry the love of the glorious King of everything to those in the park, so that more may come to the banqueting table of the King.
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A few years later, in 2012, our family gathered around the table to pray, this time at a ranch in Texas. Our then-teenage daughter Annie was trying to decide what she should do the summer following graduation. She felt the Lord calling her to bring a group of her Texas friends to Rhode Island so they could participate in Summer OFF with Godspeed Church.
The idea became reality. Using materials from another missions trip she had participated in, Annie brought her group of friends together weekly to disciple them with Bible studies and prepped them for the missions trip. We dubbed the mission “LOVENET” for New England and Texas, and prayed that God would grow them and give them a love for the children of Providence. He was building community. He was teaching Annie how to take gospel principles she had learned from one community to help unify another community. They were growing up into oneness. There were so many growth stories to be told about that summer that she could write a huge volume.
In 2014, our son Drew and I had the opportunity to share a little about Summer OFF to a home group from our church in Dallas one evening. The members, who met at the home of Derek and Miranda Laughlin, opened their hearts to a mission trip to the east coast. As Miranda and I got together to plan out our time for the designated week in Dexter Park, her passion and gifting for working with kids in a capacity like this became evident.
That week in Rhode Island, it was a joy to see how each person brought a gifting and saw a place where he or she could build up the body and contribute. Some were at home performing silly skits or sharing the gospel with children, while others had opportunity to use their professional skills to lend insights into the communities served by Summer OFF. The biggest marvel from that summer is to see how God used us to help lead the Laughlins to New England where Derek has begun his biblical counseling business and Miranda has begun her role as Summer OFF Director. The greatest privilege of being members of one body is seeing how Christ is building his church and to participate in that process.
He has enlarged the table of personal ministry to show us how he has a kingdom-centered heart, based in his purpose for us in community. I’m awed to think of how he drew in all of Godspeed Church to serve in Summer OFF. Then, as the circle widened to include other churches in other communities and even more to churches in other states, God is expanding Summer OFF in amazing ways that only the giftings of the body of Christ can provide.
He is teaching me to embrace “us” over “me”. A simple prayer for my family was all that I had, plus faith that he would provide an answer. He is up to much more than I know. Just like I would never cook a delicious meal for my family without sitting down to enjoy it with them, I believe the work in Dexter Park that ministered to others was transformative for our family as well.