Friday, May 6, 2016

A living tree in Virginia

Tree of Life Ministries
I'm not much of a clothes shopper. I'll put off buying clothes as long as possible, and when I go I'll spend as little time in Walmart or Target as possible. But on this Saturday, I was taking time lingering over the shirts for two-month old boys. I found a shirt with a motorcycle and another with a tie (not a real tie, but darn cute). It helps to shop when you don't pay for the clothes.

Our friend, Danita, who is expecting a little boy in August, told us about this shopping day at a Baptist church in Purcellville, Virginia. Once a year, they put on this free shopping event. In the parking lot, a large selection of furniture is available. Inside, in the church's large meeting room, table after table and rack upon rack is loaded with free clothes. And a big breakfast is served after the shopping is done.

To keep things orderly, there is a first come, first served line. While standing in the line, volunteers serve coffee, water bottles, and donuts. Other volunteers ask those waiting in line about specific needs, in order to offer them Tree of Life services. They also take prayer requests. Groups of one hundred people at a time are seated in a tent, babysitting is offered for small children, and guests are told, in Spanish and English, about how to begin a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Then they're given bags for their shopping.
Each group of a hundred is given a half an hour to look through and fill their bags from a large variety of clothing (if they want, guests are welcome to shop again, but they have to wait in the line each time). A woman played keyboards and sang worship songs while guests shopped.

When their time is up, they're invited to a breakfast of donuts, fruit, biscuits, sausage and eggs is offered in a room set up to inform guests of other service offered by Tree of Life. It's a non-profit organization that began at Purcellville Baptist Church but now is supported by sixteen other area churches as well.
Tree of Life offers help through five different "Branches:" Food (food pantry, community kitchen, community garden), Life Skills (Job counseling, English classes, financial counseling), Shelter (Housing, home repairs, clothes & furniture), Healthcare (Health education, medical vouchers, urgent care, dental & optical help) and Relief (helping special needs families, care for the elderly, emergency services).

I had an opportunity to talk with Paul Smith, who helped found the organization. After Hurricane Katrina, Paul had gone with a group of volunteers from his church to help in Mississippi. On the bus ride back, Paul was thinking, "I'm going the wrong way. I should be staying and helping people." He was thinking there weren't needs in Purcellville. After all, the city is located in Loudoun County, Virginia, which (judged by median average family income) is the richest county in the nation. But God seemed to tell Paul, "Open your eyes and you'll see the need." Paul began to look around and saw that even though there was great wealth; there were still people in need.

He went to the leadership of Purcellville Baptist and asked them to set aside ten percent of their budget for the poor in the area. This didn't seem to make much sense, because the church had just completed a large building project and had a good deal of debt, but the church took up the challenge and Tree of Life Ministries eventually grew from that challenge. Smith is now looking to expand the program into other cities -- he just needs people for leadership.

I appreciated that so many of their services (such as job and financial coaching) are intended to fulfil the organization's slogan, "A Hand Up, Not a Handout," and that a primary of principle of the group is that the purpose of giving is to show the love of Christ. We definitely saw that in action while we were there.

As we left (with maternity and baby clothes in tow), Mindy heard a volunteer say to a young mother, "Sweetheart, we want you to have something to eat. Do you want to take a meal home?" From what we saw, each guest who came to that Saturday morning clothing grab was treated with the same concern for their physical and spiritual well-being, with attention paid to what they really needed.