Bring faith; the Rev. Hill will give you the works
As near as Tom Hill can remember, it all started a year ago this past Sunday, when he and several dozen people were pulling weeds and spreading gravel in the heat of a June morning.
As they worked, they talked about religion. And that was to be expected, because Hill is a minister at First United Methodist Church. Those working with him were members of the congregation.
They were working at the home of an elderly woman who was unable to get out and take care of her yard. The previous week, during a service, the Rev. Hill had mentioned that it would be a charitable thing if some people from the church were to help out the woman. He expected perhaps a dozen people to come.
So when 37 people showed up, the Rev. Hill knew that he was on to something. And when, as they worked, they talked about their faith in a way that had not happened before, the Rev. Hill was sure that he had found a new way to worship.
It caught on, and the Rev. Hill called this kind of service WORKship. In the past year, he has created a website to tell others about this innovation (www.workship.org), had more than 50 churches around the nation buy into the concept, and is planning a conference here this fall to answer questions from representatives of dozens of other churches from throughout the nation who want to try it.
"It's been really cool," said the Rev. Hill.
The idea behind WORKship is to blend fairly traditional worship services with some kind of charitable work, such as cooking meals for homeless people or making clothes for infants born to needy families.
There certainly are plenty of church groups that do charitable work. But with WORKship, that charitable work is the major part of the worship service.
As all good marketers, the Rev. Hill knew he needed a catchy slogan to sell the concept. He came up with: "Just sitting in church stinks. That's why they call it a pew."
And although the concept originated in a Methodist church, it has been adopted by churches of different faiths. In Tucson, a Presbyterian and a Roman Catholic church have become WORKship members, with a Jewish synagogue, a mosque and a Baha'i congregation also planning to join soon, the Rev. Hill said.
In WORKship, every week is a little different.
After one service last Sunday, members wrote letters to U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Tucson Republican, urging him to support humanitarian aid for Africa. Another service later Sunday lasted only 15 minutes so church members could get into the kitchen and cook a spaghetti dinner for about 70 homeless men at the Gospel Rescue Mission.
Some church members have found that what goes around comes around.
Dan and Cindy Curtis are members of First United and have been active in the WORKship program since its inception. Several times they joined up with church teams working at the homes of elderly or disabled people.
But on one recent Sunday, the Curtises found that it was they who needed help from the WORKshipers. Cindy was pregnant, and Dan had started a home remodeling project in anticipation of their larger family. But with Cindy scheduled to deliver this week, it was clear the child would arrive before the work could be completed.
"This is the first house we ever owned, and this is the first baby we ever had," Dan Curtis said. "We had dug ourselves a real hole."
The WORKship team showed up and in a few hours accomplished what Dan had been unable to get done in weeks.
"It's almost a deeper form of prayer," Curtis said. "There are reasons to spend time in church to revitalize yourself. But real revitalization takes place out there."
That's what the Rev. Hill was trying to accomplish when he started the program.
"It's totally outside the normal way churches work," he said.
"That first weekend, when we were spreading gravel and pulling weeds, we found out that we talked about stuff that we never talked about in church. And when we finished with that project, we didn't want that feeling to end. It is so cool to see how it affects every area of our church."
Although church members of all ages take part in WORKship, young people - who are among the biggest challenge for churches to attract and keep interested - are among the most enthusiastic participants, the Rev. Hill said.
Nick Demesa, a First United member, said he has seen that in his 8-year-old daughter, Sierra, who is an excited and an active WORKship member. Sierra has worked at distributing food to homeless people, preparing meals for shelters and cleaning the yards of elderly people - all of which gave her the opportunity to meet people she otherwise would not be exposed to, Demesa said.
"There's a difference between hearing it and doing it," Demesa said. "Your faith has a lot more meaning when you are actually doing something."
The Rev. Hill increasingly sees that excitement and feels that WORKship will continue to grow.
"It's our worship service," he said. "We just look at it as not complete unless we perform service and help people out."
Mark Kimble's column appears Thursdays. He also appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Roundtable segment of "Arizona Illustrated" on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. Phone: 573-4662; fax: 573-4569; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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