By Kayleen Reusser
In 2011 seven schools in the East Allen County School district of Fort Wayne, Indiana, closed. The 120 members of Colony Heights Church of Christ were concerned for the children who were affected by the closings.
“The main focus of the Colony Heights Church of Christ is to encourage Christian unity,” said senior minister Ron Walter. “We do that by strengthening Christian values in our families, in the community of Fort Wayne, and around the world.”
Sensitive to the needs of their community, the congregation implemented a series of programs to help young families while introducing them to the church.
In August 2011 the congregation hosted Camp Gateway, a weeklong free tutoring review session for children in grades 1 to 4. The camp was conducted at the church the week before school started in August.
Walter and two dozen members of the congregation worked with East Allen County School administrators to make Camp Gateway applicable to the needs of the students. “Public school teachers know the students’ needs,” said Walter. “We listened and got ideas to offer a structured setting and fun activities built around math and reading.”
Officials of the school district provided busing for students in housing areas near the church. Any child living in Fort Wayne, a city of 250,000, was eligible for the free program. Daily attendance averaged 42.
The church hired six teachers for the students, some from within the congregation. Pre-registration was required. Caregivers printed the registration form from the church’s website and mailed it or brought it to the church office during business hours. They could also fill out the paperwork at the church.
Camp Gateway’s structured schedule provided review sessions of basic academic skills (reading, writing, and math) through the process of building a castle. Walter explained, “We hoped the students would see the value of understanding math skills and that school could be fun.”
A Whale of a Good Time
Gateway was so successful it was repeated in 2012. “We used the theme ‘Sea Life’ for the week, studying the story of Jonah as part of our math and reading projects,” said Walter. “Our early elementary students built a whale from cardboard boxes as part of the program.”
Camp Gateway staff and students entered the 10-foot whale in the local Monroeville Harvest Festival parade two weeks after camp ended. Ten students from the camp and helpers walked in the parade, distributing flyers about ministries provided by the church. “Publicity about our programs is one of our most difficult obstacles,” said Walter. “Meeting our neighbors face to face in the parade was an effective means for us to advertise our services.”
Realizing students needed more than just a week of academic review, members of the church also offered free after-school help with homework.
Meals and Ministry
Camp Gateway was held from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. daily and children were served a light breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
Millie Painter of Decatur, age 81, coordinated a staff of 14 in the kitchen during Camp Gateway. Painter, a former waitress, and her husband, Doyle, have attended Colony Heights Church for many years. “I’ve always been involved with food,” said Painter. “Growing up, Mother worked outside the home and taught me to cook to help her.”
Another ministry of the church involving food takes place one Wednesday night of each month when Painter and other church members prepare a hot meal before Bible study. The free meal, like most at the church, is open to the community. “Many people don’t have time to cook a meal after work before coming to church for Bible study,” said Painter.
Painter also plans church funeral dinners. At Christmas she and other volunteers bake 80 dozen cookies for inmates of the Allen County Jail. “Cooking is a lot of work,” admitted Painter. “But it’s rewarding to offer it to those who enjoy eating—and that includes everyone.”
Meeting the needs of urban communities was not new to Ron Walter, a native of Bourbon, Indiana. From 1989 to 1992, the Johnson University graduate served churches in Illinois and Indiana while playing guitar and singing with the Christian band Koheleth (“The Messenger”).
In 1994 Ron, his wife, Twila, and their three children moved to Fort Wayne where Ron set aside his career as a minister to start a construction business. The family attended Colony Heights Church of Christ.
Four years later, when the church’s minister retired, Ron was asked to fill the pulpit until a new preacher could be hired. The congregation liked his preaching and personality so much they asked him to stay on in a permanent capacity. “I had built a business that supported my family,” said Walter, “but I felt the call back to pastoral ministry in this city and area I had grown to love.”
Connecting Through Music
With his musical background and a plethora of musically talented church members, the congregation offered music lessons to middle and high school students. “The lessons are free to students who qualify for reduced lunches at their schools,” said Walter. His son Michael has toured both coasts with a Christian rock band and earned a college degree in music. He and other instructors from the church teach the dozen or so students who have signed up for lessons.
The church’s interest in music led the congregation to host its first weekend-long music festival in 2011. Eight music groups, ranging from Southern gospel to Christian metal and contemporary praise music, performed in concert during the weekend. Admission was free and offerings were accepted to aid with various causes.
A portion of the festival proceeds was designated for food vouchers to be used at an area food bank. “The church issues vouchers to needy people throughout the year,” said Walter. “We have a church pantry for emergency food. The vouchers allow us to provide fresh food as well.”
Walter said most of the music bands donated their time to the festival, which was also held in 2012. “People are generous when they know their offerings will be used to feed people,” he said.
The young people of the church sold concessions during the festivals to raise funds for mission trips. “Our youth group, numbering around 10, has always earned enough money, usually $10,000, to finance a mission trip every four years,” said Walter. Past destinations include Mexico and New Orleans. In July 2013 the group is planning to work at a Native American reservation in Arizona.
Crafts for Christ
Walter said the music festival’s main objective, introducing the church to the community, has been successful. “It is one of our most popular events,” he said. “Each year crowds fill our main hall which holds 500 people.”
The church also hosts a craft show, another popular event. “We charge a minimal amount to vendors to display their items,” said Walter. “We open the church to this event because we want people in the community to know we are friendly and available to them.” In 2012 nearly 800 people attended the fair, which displayed the wares of 42 crafters.
In 2011 the Colony Heights Church of Christ began holding an additional worship service on Sunday mornings. While the regular service with blended music continued at 10:00 a.m., the church started a second service with contemporary music. “The second service has grown from 35 to 60 people,” said Walter. “Our goal was to reach younger people, so we allowed our young people to put together an informal worship service that may be more comfortable for them,” he said. The youth service meets in the church’s café area. Walter preaches at all services.
These programs are in addition to the church’s regular schedule of weekly worship services, Sunday school classes for all ages, children’s Bible studies, week-long Vacation Bible School held each summer, in-home Bible studies, and meetings of the church’s seniors once a month to play games.
Walter is proud of the outreach programs put into place by the congregation. “We’re attempting to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the community,” he said. “Our church might be smaller in size than other congregations, but our mix of young, middle-aged, and older members allows us to pursue diverse activities that affect not only ourselves, but the community outside the church.”
Kayleen Reusser is a freelance writer in Bluffton Indiana and member of Colony Heights Church of Christ.
Start Your Own Tutoring Program
Read these tips and talk through plans with key people from your church and local school.
“How to Start an After School Program in My Church” by Kevin M. Jackson
“Developing a Tutoring Program” by Derry Koralek and Ray Collins