By Kristen Caldwell
A little more than three years ago the volunteers for Oak Grove United Methodist Church’s summer picnic were tired, the food was getting expensive, and there were only a few community members engaged, so they held what would be their last summer picnic in 2016.
But Rev. Heather Riggs said she and church members weren’t ready to give up on the idea of connecting with the community.
“In an effort to see if we could connect this great idea with our community, I went to the Oak Grove Community Council meeting to ask if any of the local groups wanted to have a booth at the picnic,” she said. “As I waited for my turn to speak, a woman named Eleanore stood up and announced that she had a group of volunteers who wanted to hold a community picnic, but they didn’t have a location. It was like God had a plan to bring us together by placing the things we needed in different hands.”
By July 2017, the picnic had become the first annual Oak Grove Trolley Trail Summer Fest with live music, food trucks and 14 vendors stretching from the front parking lot of the church down the sides of Oak Grove Boulevard.
Riggs said church members worked side by side with unchurched community members to set up tables, chairs, canopies, decorations, and trash cans and then to clean it all up again at the end.
“We took shifts as building hosts to provide public restrooms, cold water, and chat with our neighbors. Our Messy Church provided a booth with free children’s craft activities and we offered free Glitter Tattoos for children,” she said.
Estimates indicate more than 500 people attended the Fest the first year and approximately 1,000 attended in 2018, with even more vendors. In August, the third annual Oak Grove Trolley Trail Summer Fest hosted more than 90 vendors and again, close to 1,000 people attended.
This outreach and connection have had a significant impact on the church, she said.
Attendance has increased at the church, both in Sunday school and in worship, because of this event. But it’s more than just the numbers, Riggs said.
“Our worship attendance and membership are growing, but more importantly, now our neighbors know that we’re a church who cares about our community, because we’re a part of our community,” she said.
Along with Eleanore, who is not a member of the church, they’ve formed an Oregon Main Street organization called Historic Downtown Oak Grove. Being part of HDOG has lead Riggs and the church to create a variety of community connections as the church that cares about its neighborhood as well as building relationships with local businesses.
It’s led to other cooperative endeavors such as the church Knock-or-Treat Halloween party coordinated with local small businesses and non-profits. They have also hosted a giving tree with community input. Instead of providing a holiday event for the community, Riggs said they put on a holiday event with the community.
It meant those who might otherwise be skeptical of a church’s intentions come through their doors and stay for a while.
“We do get some community members who try out our church after these events, but more than that, when I ask new folks who join the church what made them want to join, they always cite the same three things: One, they wanted to be a part of a reconciling church. Two, they love that we have children and joyfully welcome them. Three, they love that we are connected and actively serving in our community,” Riggs said. “Inclusion, children and service are what matters to our community and we know this because we are engaged with our community.”