We’ve been lied to. It’s unclear where the deception began. Somewhere along the line, though, we all started thinking that we couldn’t work together. Couldn’t serve side-by-side with people who were different from us. We separated. We segregated. As a people, as a nation, and as individuals, we stopped collaborating with anyone who wasn’t exactly like we were.
And we were wrong.
For the last seven years, the incredible people of HEB have been correcting that mistake by working together to tackle the problems our community faces. There’s no doubt that our neighbors are exceptional, but we’ve always known that they couldn’t be alone. We found proof when we moved into Cleburne. Proof best embodied by a civil servant and a religious leader who see our work from two different perspectives, but somehow see the exact same thing.
Dilapidated Homes, Dim Spirits
Clint Ishmael has been part of the Fire Department in Cleburne, Texas, for 24 years. He’s been the Fire Chief for the last 16. The city stole his heart early in his career; its unique Big-City-Small-Town feel makes it an exciting environment. There’s enough diversity that nothing feels routine, but the community is so tight-knit that every corner feels like home.
There’s a caveat to the charm, however. When every square inch of a place feels like home, crumbling houses and streets feel like personal issues. As wonderful as Cleburne is, there’s no denying that the city’s infrastructure is growing old. Its history runs back to the Civil War, with economic hills and valleys in the century that followed. The city boomed when the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex did, doubling in size between 1940 and 1990. As such, a good portion of the housing is dated. The Cleburne Fire Department has overseen code enforcement for those homes since the 1960s.
“In Cleburne, the Fire Department is in charge of what we call Substandard Housing. That’s a problem for Cleburne and for every community. Communities, much like people, will age through a natural aging process,” Ishmael said.
“When you go into a community and you see a lot of dilapidated or vacant homes, that has an actual impact on the community; on the life of the community. The more you can re-establish your neighborhoods, build your neighborhoods to get those houses occupied, the better you are. The stronger your community is.”
But the Fire Department wasn’t equipped to fix those problems as much as it was to identify them.
Neighbors in Every Sense
The United Presbyterian Church of Cleburne sits three miles down the road from the Fire Department’s administration building. Like the rest of the community, it’s a classically charming structure. The outer walls are stone. The sanctuary is a cozy mixture of red carpet and wood paneling. Cleburne is many things — a historic railroad stop, a friendly community, a one-high-school town — but perhaps its most notable quality is the near omnipresence of the faith community. Churches seem to sprout from every neighborhood.
Kenny Rigoulot, who pastors United Presbyterian, is part of a multi-church partnership that aims to unite the city’s numerous congregations under the banner of Christian service. According to him, each church’s willingness to see past doctrinal and theological differences is a testament to the importance of the thing they agree on: Christ himself.
“When churches can come together and serve the same Lord together; serve people in their community — not in an effort to get them to come to their church, but just as an outward expression of the love of Jesus Christ — it does wonders for the Body,” Rigoulot said, referring to collective Christianity as the Body of Christ.
“In an age when words are thrown around and sound bytes are taken out of context, it’s important for churches to come together and share The Word… When people that have been burned by church — or that have not been brought up in the church, but have heard about church in a negative fashion — have had negative experiences with evangelical efforts, it’s important to let them experience the love of Christ. Without being pushy. Without an agenda. Just for the sake of being a neighbor.”
Despite their willingness to serve, however, Rigoulot’s congregation wasn’t sure where to start.
When 6 Stones arrived in Cleburne, the multi-church partnership had been running for years. They had organized united worship services and corporate prayer meetings. But they were struggling to find ways to serve their community together. Identifying and verifying needs in the community is a full-time job, and setting up a service project would take hours away from church staff that simply couldn’t be spared. At the same time, Ishmael’s firefighters and code enforcers were buried under the weight of knowing the community’s needs and being unable to address them.
“My firefighters are often frustrated because they see a need — and oftentimes they’ll try as best as they can to address that need — but I think the needs are many and the resources are few,” Ishmael said. “Many of our problems on a day-in-and-day-out basis — especially with issues like Code Enforcement — there’s usually social issues tied behind them. Poverty, mental illness, stuff like that. Issues that cities aren’t really well-equipped to deal with.”
Where one group was ready to work and unsure where to go, the other was paralyzed by their wealth of information and lack of resources. They were a ready-made team. They just didn’t know it. Someone had to be brave enough to call out the lie that separated them. So when 6 Stones asked for their help with a Community-Powered Revitalization (CPR) project, both parties dove in.
“This is a gift for everyone involved,” Rigoulot said. “We get to know not only the folks we’re serving but also the folks we’re serving with. 6 Stones helps bring people together, helps relationships form around a common purpose, which is to share the love of Christ in word and deed.”
Into the Future
Both Rigoulot and Ishmael believe that their community is better because of the work 6 Stones empowered them to do. Just as we would never claim credit for the strength of the HEB community, we defer to the people of Cleburne on the success of CPR in their city. 6 Stones exists for one purpose: to unite like-minded people and help them tackle the problems around them. We form those partnerships because they’re consistent with Scripture, which gives us confidence that they’ll bear fruit. So far, they have.
“Every person wants to see their community improve and wants it to be a good place for people to live; for people to raise their children,” Ishmael said. “I’ve been able to meet the homeowners and learn some of their stories. Be impacted by how appreciative they were of that and what this program was doing for them.”
Rigoulot seems to agree, albeit from a slightly different perspective:
“It’s almost become cliché that those who serve get more out of it than they put into it. And yet, we find that over and over again. In our lives as well as in scripture,” he said. “Jesus Christ came not to be served, but to serve. He calls us to serve in His name. When we do so — when we give — we receive. When we lose our life, we gain our life. Because we live in Him.”
Civil service and faith-based service are two sides of the same coin, and that coin ought to be invested in the community. What’s good for part of the city can be good for the whole city. That’s as true in Cleburne as it is here, and we can’t wait to get back to work proving it.