Traditionally, the deacons of the church are responsible for the physical needs of the body of Christ. This is according to the model in Acts 6, (for the daily distribution of bread) and Acts 11, (for the collection of gifts). As our body at Hillside has grown, we’ve broken down the job of deacon into smaller, more specific roles. For example, we have an administrative and facilities deacon, a finance deacon, and deacons over service leaders. These service leaders assist the deacons, and do even more specific jobs. One service leader is in charge of the coat drive, another the food pantry, another Angel Tree, etc. But there is so much that doesn’t fall neatly into a category. To illustrate what a deacon and service leader do, I wanted to tell a story that involved both deacons and service leaders. But our people are very careful of privacy! Each one said that if they told me a specific story of how they helped someone, they may violate the privacy of the person in need. No one I asked would tell me a story. So I thought about a story we all know something about already, that happened a long time ago. And then I knew I must tell the story of the Cuban refugees. Their story both illustrates how deacons and service leaders may work, but also magnifies the work of the Lord in the world.
Eight or ten years ago, (who can remember?), our church decided to sponsor a family who wanted to escape the Castro regime. Our missionary to Cuba, Win Gritter met them, at the airport. It was great relief to talk to someone who understood them! Grandma, a mom, and a high school age daughter had arrived with only the clothes on their backs. It was winter in Michigan, so needless to say, they were freezing cold. Right away, Win took off her thickly padded winter coat and put it on grandma. (Grandma still wears that coat, all these years later.) When Win asked them if they were hungry, they told her a gentleman in the airport saw them looking lost and bought them dinner so they weren’t hungry anymore.
Our church was ready to receive them. Kathy Douma, neither a deacon nor a service leader at the time, but simply a member who wanted to help, had readied her three bedroom basement so they would have a roomy place to stay, with a bedroom for each woman. They were to stay there until their apartment was ready. But they were afraid. In Cuba they had been told that the Americans would be friendly at first, and then would just take them somewhere and leave them. As they huddled together in one bedroom of the basement, Deacon Steve Alles was collecting items to make them a home. Steve and his friend Dave Heyboer drove around in a truck donated for the purpose. They picked up bed frames and mattresses, chairs and tables, and every kind of household thing donated by the people at Hillside.
Meanwhile, at the upstairs apartment someone at church had found, Service Leader Dawn Fennema, hung curtains, placed towels, put away dishes and food, made the beds when the men came, and generally supervised the making of this new home. She probably had help, but who can remember? One thing was still needed: a sofa. This is where my husband and I and others not even from Hillside came into the story.
A couple of weeks before anyone even knew we were going to furnish this apartment, a friend called me and said she had a sofa to give away. Did any of our young adult children need one? They did not. The weeks passed. Then we heard in church that furniture was needed to furnish an apartment for a family of Cuban refugees. I remembered that phone call. Sure enough my friend still had the sofa. It was a dark and stormy night, (Seriously! It was). The snow was falling and the roads were slick. There was a travel advisory. But we had to get this done! For some reason, which we cannot remember, we had to move them into their own apartment within two weeks and the time was almost up. So, we drove to our friend’s home in Grandville on the snowy roads. Their drive was steep, and they remembered Roger’s truck was not four wheeled drive. Because they wanted to help in any way they could, when we arrived, they had already hooked up their massive SUV to a trailer which held the sofa.
We drove through the storm to the apartment where Dawn waited with Dave. The men wrestled that couch up the stairs as I followed. And then I stood speechless. Everything matched! The table legs and chair backs, the throw rug, and the curtains at the windows. Everything had a touch of the exact same shade of green. And now here arrived the sofa, donated by strangers to Hillside. The plaid in the couch had that shade of green plus another pleasing accent color found in the rug.
Did anyone care about colors? Weren’t we just making a home, as quickly as we could, for some people from another land who had nothing? Yet, God seemed to care. The first impression of their new home was going to make these women very happy. They were shocked at the hominess and beauty of this apartment, and it was theirs.
So the story goes on. These women are still part of Hillside. And Hillside is a part of them. The deacon and service leader didn’t care so much who did what. Steve says he forgot that he was even picking up this stuff because he was a deacon. He just did it out of response to a need. So that is a glimpse of what deacons and service leaders do, but it really is about God’s people reaching out to the immigrant, the homeless, his children who need help.
“I tell you whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” (Matthew 25:40). “Each of you should look not only to your own interest but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
-By Margaret Broersma, with contributions from Win Gritter, (missionary)
Steve Alles, (deacon), and Dawn Fennema, (service leader).