My time in Congo gained me a new understanding of where I was and how to be in the world where everything was expanded. A redefining of what are real problems and what are not. It was there where I learned that if you want to make a difference in your community, you have to do more than just look like you’re doing something to help. Bake sales just don’t cover it. You have to actually do things that cause real change for people. What I saw taught me what is possible if people will commit to it. Sometimes this causes frustration. But, I have to remind myself at times when I feel that I get too critical, that those I’m judging haven’t seen the things my eyes have seen.

Before I stepped foot in a classroom, I worked for the United Methodist Church as the communication director for the Arkansas Conference. My territory was the entire state which consisted of hundreds of churches that ranged from massive congregations in more prominent cities across the state to small country churches that were well off the beaten path. Apart from maintaining the conference office’s communication needs, I spent most of my time acting as a communication resource for these congregations doing everything from helping them build or update their websites, to giving workshops on how to get out in the community and actively shape their reputation among those who didn’t darken their doors. In PR terms, I was teaching them how to develop and improve their brand awareness.

It was during this time that I also began working with the denomination’s central communication office in Nashville with a new national advertising and outreach campaign called Igniting Ministry. In a world where religious marketing campaigns were cheesy at best, Igniting Ministry commercials, were well thought out and professionally produced. As it happened, the campaign launched at the beginning of September 2001.

Planes hitting the World Trade Center changed everything. The commercial time was already purchased, but the ads that had been produced no longer fit the emotional or spiritual needs of the country. The team scrambled to rewrite and reproduce the 30-second television ads to ones that resonated with a country in grief. One simply read, “For all that days that end in “why?”” Followed by “The people of the United Methodist Church” with the campaign’s slogan “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”

The positive public response was tremendous.

The golden rule of communication is, “Know thy audience.” My personal follow up to that rule is that you reach people where they are, not where you want them to be. And this campaign did just that. It connected people with a sense of hope and comfort at a time when it was hard to know where to turn. There was nothing to sell, just a voice offering a shoulder to lean on for those who needed it.

While outside audiences really seemed to resonate with the ad campaign, some within the denomination began to scoff at the open hearts, open minds, open doors tagline and pushed back. But the thing about advertising, is if you make a public promise like that, people are going to expect you to deliver on it. If you fail to meet their expectations, you’re not just going to fail, you’re going to lose ground.

When I taught local church workshops, the single biggest question I would ask them was if they were making any tangible difference in their community? If they closed the doors and shut down their church tomorrow would anyone outside of their own congregation notice? If the answer was “no” then a good place to start our conversation was why? Sometimes it’s hard to admit that whatever your thing is, isn’t as great as you’d like to imagine. Too often, I’ve learned, people just want to look like they’re doing something without actually doing it. They want the reputation for the work, but not the calluses.

Somewhere along the way I heard the story of a big old downtown Methodist church that was built sometime in the earlier part of the 20th century. It’s the same story you can find in almost any city. A big brick building built in a downtown that was the center of activity decades before. But over time communities change and what was once the affluent part of the city began to seep into disrepair. People moved to the suburbs, businesses closed and all the problems that follow low-income populations grew as the demographics shifted over the decades.

But the people who originally attended this church and their decedents kept going there. Reduced in numbers, but largely faithful. At present the church mostly was just open for worship services on Sunday mornings with staff working behind locked doors the rest of the week.

One day, the folks at this church looked around the surrounding neighborhood in disrepair and decided they should do something to help their neighbors. So, they did what church people do and they formed a committee and had a meeting. At that meeting they asked the question of, “What do these people need?” which could seem, to the quiet observer, as a red flag. The committee decided that “these people” obviously need a food pantry and after school tutoring. The people at the church had the resources to do just that and so they put in a bunch of work to organize those programs, then they printed some fliers and on the big day, opened the doors and waited.

Not a single person showed up.

The thing to understand about this church is that it wasn’t that they had a bad reputation in the community. It’s that they had no reputation in the community. It was just a big brick building taking up space on a city block with people who weren’t locals going in and out of it. It wasn’t their community anymore.

The church had become disconnected from the community it was originally built to serve.

But, as these things go, the committee met again and after some fussing about what went wrong and complaining about how ungrateful people were at all their efforts, a remarkable thing happened. Someone asked a simple question.

“Why don’t we ask them what they need?”

And they did just that.

Armed with clipboards the committee members went out into the community with another very simple question.

“What is it that we can do to make your life better?”

They talked to people out on the sidewalk, outside of businesses, anywhere they could find people that lived around the church. Then after asking what they felt was enough people they sat down and compiled the answer.

And that answer shocked them.

It wasn’t a food pantry. It wasn’t after school tutoring. It didn’t have anything to do with clothes or money.

The number one thing people wanted help with was their roach and rat problem.

I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in a place that’s infested with roaches, but I have. And let me give you a little insight. When you flip on the lights at night you see roaches crawl across the floor. When you open your silverware drawer, you find roaches on your forks and spoons. When you put on your clothes, sometimes you find them inside your shirt. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night because something just crawled across your face.

Now imagine if you’re a single mom with an infant who wakes up in the middle of the night to a crying child. Imagine flipping on the light and seeing roaches crawling on your baby in her crib.

No ask yourself what after school tutoring means to that mother.

Not a thing.

You see, when an apartment complex gets infested, it doesn’t matter how clean you keep your own place if the person on the other side of the wall doesn’t. Or if the walls themselves are just highways for roaches to travel.

So, the church used their resources and they got in contact with the building owners and property management companies, they got in contact with pest control companies. They held pest control workshops with tenants and actively worked with the community to get in front of that problem.

And people came.

But the best part? Is after it was all said and done, these folks grabbed their clipboards and went back out into the community and asked yet another simple question.

“What else can we do for you?”

If you want to make a difference in your community, you have to do things that actually make a difference.

I’ve witnessed too many examples of something designed to serve an outside community gradually be flipped to become something to get the outside community to serve the thing itself or some group behind it. Whether guided by fear or greed, these are the parasites and they will eventually kill whatever it is they’re trying to grow.

But, let me say this again. If you want to make a difference in your community, you have to do things that actually make a difference.

Create something that is good for those it touches. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s good. Seek to enrich it with more goodness. Then dedicate yourself to it. Let the Creator of goodness guide you. Work to make it better. Work to improve the experience of those it serves. Arrange your life around it. And be uncompromising to these values. If you do these things, I have no doubt this good thing will thrive over time. But, if you’re constantly asking yourself how this good ‘thing’ will benefit you or your organization instead of those it serves, then you’ve missed the point entirely.

If you don’t commit to giving, neither will anyone else and the result will gradually suck the life out of this thing you want to see grow, and just like a flower cut from its root, it will begin to wilt and die. I’ve seen it time and time again.