One Sunday every year, Cicero United Methodist Church takes a break from traditional services and sermons and instead encourages parishioners to go out into the Cicero community and make a difference.
“It’s something that the United Methodist Church nationally started to remind us that sometimes we need to worship with our hands,” said Rev. Rebecca Laird, associate pastor at the church. “It’s not just about coming to a building and being here on Sunday morning and worshipping that way. It’s about more than that. It’s about taking the love that we get from that and going out into our community and using it to better our community and taking God’s grace and sharing it with anyone that we meet.”
The church held its fourth Be the Church Sunday June 2, conducting a variety of projects from packing goodie bags for the Military Appreciation Room at the airport to making lap robes for patients at Van Duyn Home Hospital to baking banana bread for the homeless to doing home renovations and garden projects for a Sudanese family on Syracuse’s North side.
“The Be the Church projects are a way for us to show God’s love out in the community,” said Diane Ilacqua, who co-chairs the event with Donnie Nugent every year. “Our participation has grown every year, with over 150 people signed up this year.”
Ideas for projects typically come from the church’s Community Outreach Committee, though some carry over from year to year. Every year, the church sends visitors to visit seniors at Malta Manor, the Cicero Senior Center and other senior homes in the area.
“When we’ve called people [at the senior homes, they say] ‘Oh, yes!’’ Nugent said. “They’re so excited about somebody coming to do something with them.”
The committee also tries to come up with new ideas every year. New this year are projects like “Love’s Laundry,” in which participants will visit the Colonial Laundromat and offer soap and quarters to people inside. The church has also been collecting goods to deliver to the Ronald McDonald House. Another rookie program: the “Fuzzy Car Wash” with partner agency the Cicero Volunteer Fire Department. The car wash will raise money to buy cat and dog food for area pet food pantries.
“Many people don’t realize that some of our local residents choose between spending money to buy food and doing their laundry,” Ilacqua said. “Providing pet food will take one stress off struggling families.”
Ilacqua was pleased that some of the new ideas came from parishioners this year.
“One of the interesting things this year, in the past we’ve arranged all the projects and asked people to sign up. But this year, groups within the church just came up with their own and went with it,” she said. “We didn’t even know about a couple of them at the beginning. I think that’s a great thing that people are thinking about it without us coming up with all the ideas.”
The annual event takes months to plan and multiple volunteers to pull off. But in the end, it’s all worth it to connect the church to the community and accomplish necessary community projects. Moreover, it helps people — those who attend Cicero UMC and non-members — have a better understanding of what the church does. For those who already belong to the church, Be the Church Sunday teaches them how they can improve their neighborhoods.
“Part of it is it’s a teachable time,” Laird said. “How do we go out and be in ministry and mission together? The church doesn’t have to go out and organize an event every time for someone to go do something, but organizing an event where we’re all doing that on a Sunday and we’re doing it as a group, even if we’re in a bunch of different places, it helps people know that we’re here. It also helps people learn how to go out and find something to do in the community to make it better. And we’re teaching them how to do that while we’re doing this.”
But it’s also an opportunity to reach out to those who aren’t involved with the church to begin with. Be the Church Sunday reveals that the church in action is less about ideology and pedagogy and more about making a difference in the community it’s supposed to serve.
“We’re trying to do things that will help the community in one way or another, even if it’s just going in and visiting people who don’t always get visitors, making flower gardens beautiful, offering to wash somebody’s car, helping people take notice that there’s a need out there,” Laird said. “A family might not be able to supply an entire food bank with food, but a whole neighborhood can. It’s helping everyone come together and build unity.”
That practice-over-preaching mentality is what Laird hopes will draw people to the church. If they can see the mission in action, they’ll be more likely to embrace the church the other 51 weeks a year.
“One of the things that we’re finding across the country is that people are very eager to join in to do something that’s going to better their community,” Laird said. “People are very skeptical of church and religious organizations. One of the things that we want to help people understand is that we’re really about the mission. We want to better our community, to show God’s love to our neighbors in all places, do all of those things and that’s what we’re all about and who we are, not just a group that worships in a church on a Sunday morning.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.