Convoy of Hope, a national food ministry to the urban poor, is expanding beyond one-day food giveaways to coordinate weeklong, citywide events that mobilize volunteers to shower inner-city neighborhoods with good works and the gospel.
The first event, called "We Care, L.A.," will unite churches and potentially thousands of volunteers on the last week of 1999 to blitz Los Angeles with acts of kindness. Christians will visit hospitals; clean up parks; paint buildings; comfort the lonely; and deliver free groceries, toys, or clothing.
"We want to be a catalyst," says David Donaldson, one of three brothers who helps lead ChurchCare America, the ministry that founded the Convoy of Hope. "God has already raised up an army of volunteers in Los Angeles. We Care, L.A. will integrate their efforts."
The foundation for We Care has been laid by Convoy of Hope, which has grown exponentially since conducting its first major food outreach in 1995. Convoy events take place on a Saturday, bringing together resources from the evangelical community and making them available to the poor at a gathering that is part food giveaway, part tent revival, and part carnival. The two consistent features of each event are a semitrailer full of food, bagged and distributed by volunteers, and a series of brief tent services conducted by a slate of local pastors. One of the ministry's goals is to "make the inner-city pastor a hero in his community," says Steve Donaldson, one of the brothers leading ChurchCare America, which has offices in Springfield, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Follow-up events pull new Christians and potential churchgoers back to church on Sunday.
Convoy of Hope has distributed 4.6 million pounds of food to 311,000 people in most major American cities since its inception. Nearly 80,000 people have become Christians at makeshift altars where Convoys are held.
ROOTED IN COMPASSION: The ministry has its roots in tragedy. Before they were teenagers, brothers Hal, Steve, and David Donaldson experienced poverty after their father, Harold, a pastor and church planter, died in 1969 when a car driven by a drunk driver jumped a divider and hit his auto head-on. Their mother, Betty, disabled by the accident, raised them with the help of members from Bethel Temple Assembly of God in Walnut Creek, California. Hal is now editor of the denomination's magazine, Pentecostal Evangel.
The Donaldsons have made dignity a pillar of the ministry, refusing simply to unload food off the back of a truck. At Convoy events, the poor are respected as honored guests. Volunteers serve hot dogs and soft drinks and distribute the grocery bags. While parents wait in line, children ride ponies and play in inflatable gym equipment.
Convoy of Hope has largely succeeded in bringing churches together across racial, economic, and denominational lines by using food and the basic gospel as centerpieces and by not addressing thornier doctrinal issues.
A BIGGER VISION: But Convoy's founders want to push the envelope of what suburban churches are willing to do in terms of serving the poor and performing community service. Recent Convoys have drawn on professional expertise within the Christian community to offer free haircuts, medical screening, dental consultation, legal counseling, and job training. The Donaldsons want to bring more of these workaday skills and services, plus compassion and long-term commitment, from affluent churches to the inner city.
"When Christians from suburban communities spend a day in a poor community, they discover that these are great people to know," Steve Donaldson says. "People imagine the poor as homeless men on drugs who won't work. These outreaches dispel those perceptions."
Can the principles that have succeeded on a local level work on a much larger scale? An early supporter of We Care, L.A. and one of the leading churches in Southern California is Templo Calvario Assembly of God in Orange County, a bilingual church of 3,800. The congregation held a Convoy outreach on Easter weekend, which has spawned several "mini Convoys," says pastor Daniel de Leon. Those events, made possible by the training his people received at the larger event (but planned without Convoy of Hope's direct input), have drawn thousands, bringing hundreds to faith in Christ and earning applause from city leaders.
De Leon's experience has convinced him there will be enough neutral ground to accommodate any evangelical church that wants to participate in We Care, L.A. "We had 40 churches of all ethnicities involved in the big Convoy event," de Leon says. "Not too many things can unite churches. Even crusades are difficult. But everybody cares for the poor. The pastors in this area want to keep working together."
We Care, L.A. is a natural extension of Convoy's ministry, De Leon says. People in his congregation plan to serve as coordinators, ushers, security guards, food distributors, and children's ministers during the outreach. "We Care is what the Convoy has shown they can do, but a lot bigger," de Leon says. "It's going to leave an impact on Los Angeles I hope will be lasting."
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