Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter
For the past eight years residents of Ellwood City, Pa., have been assisted by “carpenters” of all ages, backgrounds and denominations.
The Carpenter’s Project began as an outreach of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Ellwood City, a small town north of Pittsburgh. Since its inception the project has grown into an ecumenical program that provides free home repairs for residents.
“One of the things that’s been pretty neat here is how well all the churches get along,” said the Rev. James Latta, pastor of Calvin. Volunteers have come from such backgrounds as Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, American Baptist and Roman Catholic.
“I can’t imagine just the Presbyterians doing this in Ellwood City,” said the Rev. David Dawson, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Shenango. He noted that although Presbyterians make up about 10 percent of the area’s population — a higher percentage than in other areas of the country — Roman Catholicism is the largest denomination in the area.
“It’s a very community-affirming, ecumenical effort,” he said.
For one week each summer these local churches — as well as volunteers from nearby Ohio and New Jersey — join together in mission. The group offers a range of services, including building handicap-accessible ramps, repairing plumbing, glazing windows and painting.
This summer, work teams from 29 churches cleaned out brush, fixed gutters and sidewalks, caulked windows and painted five houses — including decks, porches and garages, said Connie MacDonald, chairman of the Carpenter’s Project board and the city’s fire chief. In one week, volunteers worked on 90 projects in 48 homes.
“People are very appreciative of somebody caring about them,” he said.
But the residents aren’t the only ones who benefit from the project. Volunteers get a chance to interact with people from other generations, MacDonald said. This year, there were 250 volunteers; of those, 135 were youth who worked alongside people in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
“Here we are in the middle of the summer and kids are getting up at 7 in the morning,” he said. “The young people enjoy it immensely and the adults come back year after year.”
As an aging community that once had a heavy reliance on the steel industry, Ellwood City has plenty of work to be done, MacDonald said, adding that volunteers help a variety of residents, from widows and widowers to young people barely scraping by.
“We don’t judge anybody,” he said. “If somebody needs something and we can do it, we try to do it.”
To be eligible for repairs from the Carpenter’s Project, residents must be homeowners and sign a waiver, Latta said. The project wants to keep volunteers busy but also aims to protect homeowners’ privacy, so income statements aren’t required, although the greatest needs receive first priority.
Over the years, the project has grown, as has its reputation in the community.
“People are well aware of us around town,” MacDonald said.
That word of mouth has been helpful to the project, which relies largely on donations to operate. Local hardware stores have gived tools, lumber and molding to the project. Another company gived sunscreen for volunteers. The churches hold fundraising dinners throughout the year. The project, which is incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization, also received a grant from Ellwood City.
“Everything that we need is provided for us,” MacDonald said. “The Lord often works in mysterious ways when you have a problem.”
MacDonald has several examples of such problems being solved. A few years ago, volunteers were working on a roof, which isn’t a job the project usually tackles. Wearing a Carpenter’s Project T-shirt, MacDonald went into a store to get supplies. While there, he met a man who owned a drywall company and who noticed the shirt. That man ended up renting an elevator for volunteers to use to haul shingles up to the roof.
That kind of community is important to the mission of the Carpenter’s Project, MacDonald said. Whether it’s between denominations, generations or businesses, interaction and teamwork are key.
“The big thing is people coming together to get the job done,” he said.