The Merge was supposed to be a family, the unifying of two neighborhoods through Jesus, but we were fractured. Looking back at The Merge last Christmas season, the Monday evening fellowship was difficult.
What happens when you combine students from two rival gang neighborhoods - Garnet & Maple - and urge them to see each other as one entity? We experienced resistance.
There was a faith community in Garnet, called Alpha, that had run for eight years. A familial trust was being experienced with Jesus at the center of it all.
In the past two years, the Maple youth started 601 Fellowship where students experienced God’s movement in powerful ways that have helped revitalize our neighborhood.
The Solidarity staff sensed that God was calling us to unify Alpha and 601 Fellowship into one Jesus-centered community.
The reality was that it felt easier to continue with the status quo and ignore the call remaining in our own neighborhoods.
God urged us to take a risk.
So, every week we switched which neighborhood would host The Merge. One week we drove students to Garnet and the next we’d transport them to Maple.
The staff leading The Merge found resistance within ourselves as we were fractured in vision, personalities, and leadership style. We were forced to figure out what parts of Alpha & 601 Fellowship had to die in order to birth this new expression of church.
Forming this new spiritual community was an uphill battle. Worship was practically challenging, the teaching time was uninspiring and culturally irrelevant, and the students hardly interacted with one another during dinner. Honestly, it felt forced.
The youth resisted this new family, almost waiting for this “new experiment” to fail. It seemed that everyone desired to go back to their respective neighborhoods and go back to the way things were.
Then, something amazing happened.
The students went to The OAKS Winter Camp and connected with one another by taking risks, worshiping God together, and speaking “words of life” over each other. They stopped claiming Maple or Garnet and started to identify as one group. God used the time at camp to move certain students into new leadership opportunities, engaging one another in deep vulnerability and prayer.
There has been a true “merging” of the two communities, one that can be a prophetic light to the church at large. The staff was encouraged by the connection made at camp, and God brought unity within our leadership.
We thought our story ended there, but God had even more in store for The Merge.
This past fall, the City of Fullerton held a community-wide meeting, announcing plans to develop the land the Maple 601 Community Center resides on, which would call for the Community Center to be taken down for a period of time. This was an opportunity for one neighborhood to support the other as the Garnet Merge students chose to stand with the Maple neighborhood for the sake of the building.
The city meeting was a beautiful picture of two rival communities coming together as one church, carrying one another's burdens. What we did not expect, though, was the introduction to an overlooked community right next door.
A block away on the South side of the Maple 601 Community Center lies Rancho La Paz, a mobile home community. Some of their concerned members came to the city meeting regarding the new development. During the meeting, it became apparent that the Rancho La Paz residents were not in favor of the new development. Through different comments and voiced opinions about the surrounding community, one of the Merge students asked, “Why are they afraid of us, we should do something about that.”
This student felt that we needed to build relationship with the mobile home park. He suggested that The Merge should host a Bingo night for the unknown neighbors.
“Let’s invite them to hang out with us and see that we are not bad people.”
Just before Thanksgiving the Merge hosted its first ever Bingo night. Seven residents from the Rancho La Paz community came that night. There was laughter, sharing a meal, and childlike excitement for Bingo. After the night was over, one of the residents asked, “Do you do Bingo night every Monday night?”
We said no, but invited her to Monday night Merge in the other neighborhood, thinking she and her friends would not be interested in attending a youth group type of night on the other side of town. To our surprise she said she would go.
That following Monday, Diana and her family showed up for Thanksgiving dinner at Garnet Community Church.
That night a young man on the fringes of the gang sat next to an elderly woman and her family. A younger girl who was from a completely different neighborhood played with the daughter of a Solidarity staff member while she was busy consoling her two foster children.
A little over a year has passed since the Solidarity staff first sensed God calling these different communities to unify under His name. This past Thanksgiving, these seemingly disparate groups formed one unique Christ-centered family. It is a merging that could have only been orchestrated by God.