This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

United for a safe community

FRESNO, Calif. — The Goliath they face is huge: gang violence, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and more. But, like David, United Faith Christian Fellowship is boldly stepping up to the challenge.

Women from the Fresno, Calif., community are welcome to shop at My Sister’s Closet, a classroom at United Faith Christian Fellowship that is stocked with high-quality used clothing suitable for interviews and office jobs. — Christian Leader
Women from the Fresno, Calif., community are welcome to shop at My Sister’s Closet, a classroom at United Faith Christian Fellowship that is stocked with high-quality used clothing suitable for interviews and office jobs. — Christian Leader

The violence hit home for the small Mennonite Breth­ren congregation a couple of years ago when a neighborhood house was hit by gunfire in a gang altercation. The home belonged to the parents of a young woman in the church family and shook up the congregation.

Under the leadership of co-pastors Jim and Yammilette Rodriguez, the church held a press conference to protest the violence and embarked on a campaign for peace and justice. Their Fresno city council member, the chief of police and other local officials joined them on the church’s front steps to show solidarity.

For this 60-member bilingual congregation, partnerships with government agencies, nonprofit groups, businesses and caring individuals in Fresno have been the key to impacting their community on a scale beyond its size.

After the press conference, Yammilette Rodriguez helped the youth of the church — a handful of high school students — secure a grant from the California Endowment to survey the community on health issues. They were not surprised to find links between violence and health. Among the problems the survey revealed was the above-average availability of alcohol.

“Crime increases in a community where there are more liquor stores,” she said. “[Our survey] found that there were over 35 liquor stores within one mile of Roosevelt High School.”

“There’s a saturation of messages about alcohol in this neighborhood,” added Janet Saucedo, a Fresno Pacific University political science major who leads the youth advocacy efforts.

Alcohol ads are part of an environment that contributes to unhealthy choices. Changing the environment can help people make better ones.

“We’re a community, so we’re all responsible for the health of our community,” Saucedo said.

Neighborhood assets

In addition to problems, the survey uncovered neighborhood assets, identifying partners who would work with them.

“When we did the door knocking we found neighbors who care, who are looking out for each other,” Yammilette Rodriguez said. “Some will just leave the area if they feel unsafe, but we at the church want to work with our neighbors who love where they live and together do whatever we can to make it better.”

The small group of high schoolers who conducted the original survey has grown to an advocacy team of a dozen students from junior high through college and adult advisers under the name South East Neighborhood Transformation.

“What we’re working on is making our community a better place,” Saucedo said. Their acronym, SENT, reflects their sense of calling.

WATCH: SENT team video

Under Saucedo’s leadership the youth have continued to work with the city officials from the press conference. Their community research and knowledge make them a vital resource for a city council task force exploring ways to make Fresno healthier and safer. One concrete result of their input has been increased enforcement of city codes limiting the way alcohol is advertised in store windows.

Along the way, they celebrate accomplishments that move them toward a healthy community. At a recent town hall meeting hosted by United Faith, 60 community people heard about the city council’s efforts to tighten alcohol and tobacco advertising restrictions.

Tangible needs

In addition to advocating for the future, the church has formed partnerships to address immediate and tangible needs. Several local grocery stores supply a weekly bread distribution. Under the leadership of assistant pastor Rene Quintanilla, the church becomes a gathering place on Saturdays as people pick up their bread and often stay for coffee and conversation.

Quintanilla says it’s a way to “let them know they have a place they can come to when they have problems and issues.”

Even prior to the community survey, the church had responded to the economic downturn with a ministry to unemployed women. My Sister’s Closet is a resource for seeking and preparing for employment. A classroom at the church is stocked with quality used clothing suitable for interviews and office jobs.

Twice a year My Sister’s Closet hosts workshops on job search techniques, interview skills and resume writing. Participants go home with three outfits along with shoes and accessories, ready to look the part for their next job interview.

Neighborhood people as well as city and service agencies throughout Fresno and beyond have become partners with United Faith to work toward a safe and healthy community.

“It takes many groups coming together for the same purpose,” said Jim Rodriguez. “At the end of the day we all want safe neighborhoods.”

Reprinted by permission from Christian Leader, the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches magazine.

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