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Massive Acts of Compassion

SoCal Network funnels millions in donated goods to the neediest through local churches.

When the Assemblies of God SoCal Network began planning a new initiative for compassion ministries called CityServe, matters moved quickly. Before the network launched the effort, retailers began donating millions of dollars in furniture, school supplies, toys, and other items to be given to the poor through local churches.

“We’ve always done compassion ministry, but not at this volume,” says Wendell R. Vinson, pastor of Canyon Hills AG in Bakersfield, a megachurch that functions as one of five hubs operated by the SoCal Network. Two hubs — in Fresno and Bakersfield — already are receiving 20 truckloads of products per month and distributing them among churches. Three more, in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Victorville, are almost up-and-running. Together they will have the capacity to serve all 470 AG churches throughout Southern California.

CityServe’s goals go beyond giving stuff away. At Canyon Hills, instead of holding large-scale compassion events, Vinson says there has been a shift to creating “an ecosystem where the body of Christ is empowered to build relationships with broken families.” That has become a game changer, he says.

“The power isn’t in the goods that are being given away, but in the relationships that are being developed,” Vinson says.

To that end, Canyon Hills already is training hundreds of local pastors and leaders cross-denominationally to distribute goods in a relational way — whether it’s building a dining room table or setting up a new bed for a needy family. Over Christmas, Canyon Hills gave away $1.7 million in household goods, shoes, school items, beds, and toys — mostly through other congregations.

“We train churches to build relationships with people they’re taking things to,” says John E. Johnson, assistant superintendent for the SoCal Network. “It’s not about people lining up at your church, getting food, and you never see them again.”

A significant boost came from an AG adherent who donated a former Montgomery Ward building

in Bakersfield. Now, the two-story, 165,000-square-foot structure has become CityServe’s primary distribution center. Trucks full of donations from big-box retailers are unloaded by church volunteers, who then collaborate with representatives from other local congregations to identify families who could use the items.

“The model is found in Scripture because it’s a local church empowerment movement,” Vinson says. “The local church is God’s infrastructure for the transformation of communities.”

One in-kind provider donated hundreds of new suitcases to CityServe, which Canyon Hills and other congregations gave to foster children in Kern County. Volunteers stuffed the baggage with sleeping bags, coloring books, and other goodies.

The idea is to run toward the areas of brokenness in local communities, according to Vinson.

“Once you lean into compassion, God increases your capacity,” Vinson says.

Johnson says CityServe is part of the “Compassion Galaxy,” which targets 10 populations of critical need the SoCal Network wants each AG church to address: the homeless, the poor, widows, orphans, the oppressed, the addicted, prisoners, the vulnerable/exploited, the unreached/unengaged, and Israel. CityServe exists to help local churches reach those populations.

“It’s just snowballing, people are coming out of the woodwork to get engaged,” Johnson says. “The response from pastors has been overwhelming. We believe we can raise the level of ministry for our churches as we become more community-oriented.”

David Donaldson, cofounder of CityServe, wants churches to become “the epicenter for dealing with social brokenness.” His background working for Operation Blessing and Convoy of Hope is helping the SoCal Network, under the leadership of Superintendent Rich Guerra, create distribution channels for large amounts of goods.

“It’s millions of dollars of product we’re pumping into communities,” Donaldson says. “The goal is not to just distribute product, but to truly help pastors get into a relationship with their communities.”

Vinson says the demographic group responding most enthusiastically as volunteers are early retirees — firefighters, law enforcement personnel, county workers, and teachers, for example — who have time and energy to give, and who understand that processes and systems are needed to run such a large operation.

“These people have mobilized as a pretty significant workforce,” Vinson says. “People show up like it’s a regular job, sorting and moving stuff, and working the warehouse. I think this will provide incredible opportunities for cross-generational compassion ministry to take place.”

Joel Kilpatrick

Joel Kilpatrick is a writer living in Southern California who has authored or ghostwritten dozens of books. Kilpatrick, who served as associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel in the 1990s, is a credentialed Assemblies of God minister.