(Photo: Saddleback PICS Ministry / Arlene Hewitt)
Reaching out to neighbors with acts of kindness was one thing, but finding neighbors to serve was another for Saddleback Church members John and Laura Cipres.
When Pastor Rick Warren of the megachurch in Orange County, Calif., announced a few weeks ago that all worship services during the second weekend in December would be cancelled so that the congregation could participate in volunteer opportunities throughout Southern California, the couple was faced with a bit of a dilemma.
Warren's plan to mobilize its base of 5,000 small study groups, and at least a majority of its 20,000 members sounded good to the Cipreses, but they really didn’t have any neighbors to offer their services to. Their home is located across from a Catholic school parking lot and next to them live residents of the Catholic school and its community, all busy with their own church activities.
That Sunday evening of the announcement, Laura Cipres went online and found a list on Saddleback’s website of the already organized volunteer opportunities for “Good Neighbor Weekend.”
With her husband next to her at the computer, she landed on the opportunity to go with others from the church to deliver Christmas gifts to children coming from single-parent homes in a neighborhood in Rosarito, just south of Tijuana, Mexico. The trip to “throw a Christmas party” was merely a less-than two-hour drive south in church vans.
The volunteer opportunity was a one-day mission trip and upon reading about this chance to serve, the Cipreses knew right away they were going to be good neighbors in a country “next door.”
On Saturday, the couple was part of a group of 35 people, mostly from Saddleback, who helped host a Christmas party for more than 200 children in a Rosarito neighborhood, each one receiving a gift, lunch, and a time to just have fun.
The trip was led by several members of Saddleback’s global PEACE team that focuses on the Baja, Mexico, area. Two of its members, Isabel and John Monje, plan to build a children’s day care center on the vacant lot used for the Christmas party.
Good Neighbor Weekend was the vision of Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren, who asked members of his congregation to take at least a half day on Saturday or Sunday (Dec. 10, 11) to go “serve in the community and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Cipres and her husband told The Christian Post they were on the same page with Warren for the church’s weekend event from the beginning.
John Cipres explained, “We’ve been praying and asking ourselves ‘what are we here for?’ Like Pastor Rick says, ‘What’s our purpose?’”
“The good neighbor weekend was actually a vehicle to get us moving,” said Laura Cipres. The couple, who are in their 50s and have been married for 10 years, said they had lost a business they owned a few years ago. After coming to Saddleback, their faith in God was re-energized and they were ready to step out of their comfort zone. They had not been on any kind of outreaches that were similar to the one they embarked on Saturday.
When asked about having to miss a Saddleback church service (the church normally delivers two services on Saturdays and three on Sundays), Laura Cipres said, “The people are the church, so no matter where we go, that’s church. We are doing church.
“To me, serving others is what God wants of us. That’s church. How better to serve Him and to honor Him than when you can be His hand extended? Yes, I can sit in the pew and warm it up and get blessed, but I was so blessed yesterday that I can’t stop thinking about it,” she said.
During the event, mission team members were given the opportunity to lead a group of children, anywhere from five to a dozen, in activities in the designated area. Face painting, playing in jump houses, and later, opening gifts were part of the day.
John Cipres said that one of the children he was matched with was a 4-year-old boy. At one point, the boy took John’s hand and began gently caressing his own face with it.
The couple was really moved by the action, realizing that the boy might not have any father or fatherly attention at home.
“What I took away from this weekend is that it made me more aware of other people and their needs,” Laura said. “When I stop to see that, then I am not looking at the trivial things that are going on in my own life. Everything else looks small to me now.”
Saddleback Church is gathering reports and information about all the Good Neighbor Weekend serving events and expects to compile an estimate of the man-hours given away in the name of Jesus.
Main event coordinator Pastor Erik Rees was asked last week by CP about what his hope is for Good Neighbor Weekend. He said, “To show God's love to our neighbors across the street, down the road, and in the community through simple acts of compassion and kindness.”
Judging by the smiles from the children and their mothers in Rosarito, mission accomplished.