In a spirited sermon urging people to join together, Pastor Thom Shafer recently asked his congregation at Cypress Lake United Methodist Church not to be divided by politics or differences of opinion, but to reach across the aisles and join together.
Several members of his Fort Myers church are currently participating in a local effort to help in the re-unification of families disrupted by emotional issues, drugs or crime. They are taking part in a volunteer ministry that cuts across some stark societal lines.
Rev. Shafer encouraged congregants to do more than the “fellowship,” where they meet before or after services to exchange pleasantries and business cards. Fellowship, he said, is most rewarding when it is difficult.
About a year ago, Rev. Shafer delivered a sermon “about the needs of community and some of the darkness that covers the area and how some people live in the shadows.
“There are parents who want to do for their children, but some of them are still very young,” he said in a recent interview. “Or they’ve grown up without a role model. Some have had issues with addictions and, all of a sudden here they are: they have children and they’re wondering how to make the wise choices.”
In November Cypress Lake began a partnership with the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida with members of the congregation volunteering for the network’s Family Mentor Program. This program was set up to ease the transition of parents and children being re-united after a period of state-imposed separation.
Mentors offer advice on a variety of topics drawn from their own lives. They teach skills like how to keep a checkbook balanced or how to pick the right educational routes for children or how to improve their lives. Most importantly, they can give advice on how to properly raise kids.
“It’s not easy for the Cypress Lake folks to make that connection, coming from comfortable homes and security in the suburbs and going into homes marked by strife and state ordered separations,” said Shafer.
“Everyone recognizes that they’re going into a different environment, but if Jesus never went into that environment, where would we be today? We’d be a church that only goes into safe places,” he added.
Reunifying families torn apart by separation, anger, drugs and crime is not an easy task, but state agencies that deal with families place a priority on getting children back together with biological parents.
Mentored parents, even those who have been divorced, want to get their kids back. To reach that end, they must have taken classes, undergone counseling and abandoned lifestyles that created the problems. They are ready to accept the responsibility of raising children. But the re-unification can be difficult and emotionally draining.
A lot of families undergoing re-unification have no family support, so mentors help them navigate resources, teach them to be more self-reliant and help transition the children back into their homes.
Florida caseworkers have plenty of work on their desks and welcome any help they can get, like the help received from volunteers Jim Meyer and Jim Scott. Both are from Cypress Lake. Meyer, 64, became a family mentor about six months ago. It’s the first time he has embarked on such a mission, and he couldn’t feel better about it.
He and a partner are mentoring a young man who had children at a young age and lost them and now is getting them back through a long process of re-unification.
“This is totally new for me,” Meyer said. Asked if it was a rewarding experience, he said, “Oh, yes. To make a difference in somebody’s life…we’ve seen the difference in this young man’s life. This has given us that opportunity to see somebody grow.”
Jim Scott, a 73-year-old psychotherapist, joined Cypress Lake about two years ago and was moved to take the training and become a family mentor after Rev. Shafer’s urging last fall.
“The main reason was a desire to give back,” he said. “It just felt like it was time to make a contribution to the world. This is one way to do it.”
Another Cypress Lake member, Julie Riching, also heard the call back in November. She and her husband Chris got licensed to care for foster children, thanks to the sermons of Rev. Shafer and pleas from the Children’s Network.
“We went to that presentation (last fall) and were really touched,” Riching said. “That’s what sparked our interest. We came home and discussed it, and decided we would get licensed to care for foster kids.”
In April, the Richings got their license and over the first seven weeks cared for five children. She said the experience is both gratifying and harrowing.
“Hearing the horrific stories involving these children, that part is really difficult,” she said. “But we’re doing it to hopefully create a safe spot for them for a little while and that’s rewarding.”
In his sermon, Rev. Shafer also said that somehow good people have gotten away from the Christian ideal of giving of themselves. Rather, they give to themselves.
“Over the past 30 or the past 40 and probably 50 years, we have been a people very focused on personal success and self-gain,” he said. “And I think much of our attention is focused there because society has said this is what we are supposed to do.”
“As a result, we are a people in a nation--a people in a world--that are very disconnected from one another,” he said. “We are people who are feeling not only disconnected, but we are feeling isolated and alienated from each other. That’s not at all what God wants for us.”
“God wants us to be a people together,” he said.
He said mentors in the program experience changes in their lives, just like the families they are helping.
“I can never measure the benefits of the program’s care receivers because I’m not there,” he said. “But I am here and when I get to visit with all those who give of their time and talent and resources, I know for a fact that the feeling of adding value to other peoples’ lives has made a huge difference in their own personal lives.
“They also are experiencing a feeling, a sense of transformation,” he said. “God is able to use them as a resource of hope.”
See the embed above or click here to view the video about the Family Mentor Program, produced by Lisa Roberson during her 2016 Summer Internship with Children’s Network of SW Florida.