A Community of Praise

05/26/2017 .
Myra Biernat Wells  .  Volunteer Storyteller

Marcia didn’t have a plan when she found herself in transition. Her son was now independent. She no longer had to look after him — or provide a taxi service for him and his friends. Without family nearby, she wondered what would fill the extra time she had inherited. Marcia went searching for her sense of purpose again. “My son was older — and making his own way in life. I needed to recreate a life for myself,” Marcia said. “I found myself stranded in the wilderness, unsettled and searching for my place.”

Marcia was catching up with her neighbor one afternoon and shared her concerns about this new season of her life. Her neighbor invited her to come check out Saddleback Church. The next weekend, Marcia visited Saddleback’s Praise service. The Praise Venue began 14 years ago at the Lake Forest campus with a diverse gathering of people who loved gospel music. “From day one, I was welcomed with open arms. The gospel music — hand-raising, energy-filled, pure exuberance — made me want to keep coming back. I felt inspired, like I was beginning a new journey.”

“I loved the choir and I wanted to join as soon as possible. I was drawn by their passion to glorify God through gospel music. I went through the audition, officially becoming a choir member, and began to make new friends right away. No one was allowed to stay a stranger. The choir became a small group for me. I have no family in the area, so before practice, I’d sit and chat. They got to know me — my talents, my struggles, my fears — and I got to know them. We took care of each other. Friendship, encouragement, a helping hand when needed, comfort in the difficult times — it was always there. I was being nurtured and revitalized in my new community of friends.”

“When the husband of a choir member died, we went to the funeral together. We brought food and supplies for the hurting family, but more importantly, helped her with the difficult emotional shift from being married to becoming a widow. Another choir member’s daughter passed away and we sang at the funeral. The choir is so devoted to community that one member proposed to his future wife at rehearsal. The choir created a safe haven for everyone, even new members, with their love for one another.”

“A few times I couldn’t make my son’s tuition payment and when another woman in the choir heard about the situation she gave me a gift of money that her small group collected to help out.”

“And last month, the choir surprised me with a huge gift on my birthday. They helped me get studio time to record an original worship song that I wrote. It was a lifelong dream to record my music and one of the most touching gifts I have ever received. This group has always provided a healthy community for me to belong to and helped me see my purpose in God’s eyes.”

“We also planned times to serve the community together outside of Sunday services,” Marcia said. “Once a month, we sing together at Saddleback’s Soul Food Civic Center outreach in Santa Ana.” There is a high concentration of homeless people living there and the choir wanted to partner with the team that provides meals for them. The choir sang gospel songs while the rest of the volunteers prepared a meal for the homeless living in a nearby encampment. “At first, there was no reaction from those who wandered over from their makeshift tents. They didn’t trust us and would just stare at us.”  

The men, hands stuffed in tattered jeans, with worn looks on their faces; young adults, barely out of their teens, who had been victimized by life; women whose self-confidence had been so shattered they could hardly look us in the eye; all eventually coming out of hiding for a hot meal and to see what the music was about.

“We held their hands and looked into their eyes. We listened to their stories of better times, of heartbreaks, and of confusion. We created an atmosphere of faith, which coincidentally is one of our favorite songs, by telling them about a God who loves them. When they cry out, God hears them, their words do not fall on deaf ears. We came to show them compassion, respect, and dignity. Then we sang. The rhythm of the songs and hand clapping lifted their spirits. Little by little, the walls of distrust came down. They abandoned their apprehension and, before long, they were worshiping alongside us.”

“I came to the Praise Venue hoping to find a fresh purpose and church home in my life. I got so much more than that — I got a whole new family to be part of and serve alongside!”

But life is a series of transitions and the Praise venue experienced one recently. Pastor Rick spoke to the congregation to explain the venue would be transitioning into the main Worship Center services. The last Sunday the congregation worshiped together was Palm Sunday. Transitions can feel overwhelming and confusing but on the other side of change there can be growth and other rewards.

“Pastor Rick explained to us: ‘There is no growth without change. There is no change without loss. There is no loss without grief. And there is no grief without pain.’ Throughout our years together we have discovered the contentment God wants us to live in daily. We have learned a combination of surrender and praise to get us through disappointment. We view this transition as a new beginning — an opportunity to rejoice in the Lord and be joyful.”

“Though we’re moving to a new location, we’re going through this transition together. Our mission to spread God’s love hasn’t changed. I found community and purpose again when I joined the Praise choir, and I’ve learned to trust in God in these transitions. We will continue lifting people up to a place of acceptance, hope, and love.”

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