Volunteers from two Episcopal churches join forces to transform a beautiful but tired old church in 12 hours. A new reality TV makeover? Hardly. This is reality in New Rochelle, N.Y., thanks to parishioners at St. John’s in nearby Larchmont.
The one-day renovation blitz was the latest version of St. John’s popular outreach project, Beyond Our Walls, which for four years has helped neighboring institutions in need. Each year, a St. John’s team finds a group doing important community work but whose building needs care and whose budget is stretched. Trinity-St. Paul’s was the perfect partner for the latest project.
Trinity’s Gothic revival structure has been a New Rochelle landmark since 1864. Tiffany windows, named for local founding families, grace the walls. But the once-thriving downtown declined, and the building suffered as the parish focused its ministry on neighbors in need. “Hundreds of dollars in upkeep became thousands,” said the Rev. Kris Lee, priest associate at Trinity.
The church last year found itself at a crossroads, struggling with its future as the city around it gained new life and began sprucing up. “We knew our outside appearance needed work,” said Lee. Enter the folks of St. John’s Larchmont and Beyond Our Walls. “We look for projects that don’t require a lot of skilled workers, since we want everyone to participate,” said Louise Tutelian, a volunteer coordinator. “That means painting and gardening projects that use many people without much expertise.”
Participants planted vinca and dozens of azaleas and other shrubs, put down pounds of peat moss and mulch, then cleaned and watered the grounds. They applied gallons of paint to Trinity’s foyer, kitchen, parish hall and exterior doors.
The project was a true joint effort, with Trinity parishioners making up nearly half the 71 volunteers, the largest co-team ever. Both parishes boast diverse congregations of professionals, families, immigrants and senior citizens. “We knew our people would show up,” said Lee.
The project became a catalyst for Trinity members to continue church repairs. With a renewed public presence, Trinity is again a strong force in its community. Last summer’s attendance was the highest in seven years and included three baptisms.
Thanks to kitchen renovations, Trinity’s lunch ministry feeds 100 people each weekday. The church’s Community Education Initiative has a newly painted room and five donated computers, where high school students can learn about applying to college. Episcopal Charities recently gave Com Ed $5,000. The parish hall’s main entrance and clergy and outreach offices will have new flooring and furniture.
How to help other churches
How can other churches help beyond their walls? St. John’s volunteers offer the following advice:
- Avoid projects that are too big, complicated or require more than one day.
- Have a “point person” from the receiving institution meet regularly with a planning team.
- Recruit volunteers before making a commitment. Depending on the project, a team can have 35 to 100 volunteers.
- Choose a project around February or March and begin publicizing it internally.
- Make a budget. St. John’s budgets around $1,500 each year for supplies and asks for donations of food for workers.
- Consult an insurance professional and have all volunteers sign a liability waiver.
- A three-person team should walk the site with the recipient and break the project down into smaller tasks.
Small parishes can team with others to help a neighboring institution. Why doesn’t St. John’s join existing programs like Habitat for Humanity or simply donate money and let recipients do their own work?
“Beyond Our Walls lets us identify a worthy project in our own backyard and plan it around our parishioners’ skills,” said Tutelian. “This is an immensely satisfying multigenerational outreach project that pairs parents and teens, seniors and 30-somethings. We have built lasting relationships with some of our recipients. There is great strength and a lot of fellowship in numbers.”