Verenice (Vere) cannot help but to smile. Everywhere she goes she is grinning ear to ear. Although she was extremely shy as an eight year old, nothing could ever stop her from greeting you with a smile. This was the case the first time she joined the Garnet After School Program and met Vanessa, an ASP volunteer.
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.
Martha first came to Solidarity when she enrolled her family in the Glimpse After School Program. It was only a few months later that Martha approached the Glimpse Director and expressed, “Meg, I could use some help.”
Martha’s family was in a tough spot. Due to an injury, her husband was unable to work and her family was in need. Even in tough times, though, it was easy to see the determination, humility and deep love Martha had for her family.
A prayer that had been silent for quite some time was starting to surface.
"God, will you please help my family, heal my husband, and help us with rent? Also, can you help me gain citizenship, get a job, and help my children to do well in school?"
God answered her prayer almost immediately as Martha enrolled in a workforce service program, called ResCare. The program required her to volunteer thirty-five hours a week at Solidarity and, in return, they would provide her with rental assistance.
During Martha’s program, she assisted with Glimpse, cleaned the 601 Community Center, and added an incredible amount of program support.
Despite language and cultural barriers, this woman’s vast array of gifts, drive, and love for people far surpassed the obstacles she faced. She worked herself into an essential role, compelling Solidarity to create a paid position on the Maple team.
Six months into her new role at Solidarity, God moved in Martha’s husband’s life and healed him of his ailments. Being the God that He is, the Lord went above and beyond and allowed Martha’s husband to get a new job and provided two cars for their family.
The healing of Martha’s husband stirred something within Martha and her family.
Martha has said that the inside of her heart has been transformed by the love of God through answered prayers regarding her husband and family’s health. She experienced God’s character shining in her life and has become a bold, free and hope-filled leader in her community, speaking life and encouragement to other women and their children.
She is truly becoming the woman God made her to be, generously using her Kingdom talents and abilities as the Maple Community Development Associate. As a person of peace in the Maple neighborhood, Martha and her family are a living light within the darkness of the community.
In the Solidarity neighborhoods, it’s common for parents to feel like their voice is no longer significant after their kids reach Jr. High. Yet Martha has naturally gathered the parents in the community, working hard to establish an understanding among the parents to know how important their role is.
A growing community of parents is finding support in one another as they participate in parent training seminars, taking leadership in planning community events, and comeing together to study God’s Word and pray for each other.
Within the students’ lives, Martha has been instrumental in bringing together two of the Solidarity neighborhoods that were once considered rival gang communities. This has come from her being a spiritual mother to many of the young women in both the Maple and Garnet neighborhood. God’s love within Martha’s life overflowed onto the young women, fostering a new community that was no longer divided by neighborhood lines.
God has answered Martha’s prayers beyond what she could have ever expected. Her husband is healed. She got sworn in as a citizen in February. Both she and her husband got new jobs and they are able to continually make rent. Her children have been chasing after God and are excelling in school getting all As and Bs. Martha has been entrusted with a role of speaking new life into the Maple & Garnet neighborhoods by working with the moms and students.
The life she is living today is an answered prayer that Martha could never have expected.