A Warm Welcome

12/17/2017 .
Karen Koczwara  .  Storytelling Volunteer

When Matt and Candace Clark made the cross country move to Camp Pendleton, they faced a sea of uncertainty. Like most young families, they desired friends, community and a place to belong. Matt, enlisted with the Marines since 2010, had been stationed in North Carolina for the past four years. While the couple had a strong faith in God and had grown up attending church, a bad experience at a church in their home town left them both discouraged. Though they longed for a church family in North Carolina, they never found a comfortable place to call home. After a while, they stopped searching for churches all together. Now, starting over across the country from familiar friends and family, they wondered if they’d ever find that community again.

“In North Carolina, we kept our faith in God, but we were not growing in that faith. We didn't have a home church to belong to. After we got news we’d be moving to California, one of the first things we talked about was finding a church as soon as we could. We knew it was time to grow in our relationship with God, and we wanted our children to grow up in a church family.”

Upon arriving at Camp Pendleton, Candace, Matt and their two young daughters immediately made friends with the neighbors. One of the friends told them about a food pantry run by a local church. Since the Clarks’ refrigerator and kitchen cabinets were empty, they decided to check it out.

Candace made the drive to San Clemente, where she showed up at the Saddleback Peace Center. The woman who signed her in at the door greeted her with a welcoming smile. “I haven’t seen you here before. Are you new?” she asked warmly.

“Yes, I am,” Candace replied.

“Well, welcome! I’m so glad you’re here!”

In that moment, something shifted inside Candace. “The volunteers there welcomed me with genuine kindness and acted like I was already a part of their family,” she said. “They were genuinely happy I was there. I felt welcome, accepted, and wanted. And I hadn’t felt that way in a very long time.”

Candace returned home with her arms full of groceries and her hope renewed again. “I want to try this Saddleback church out!” she told Matt eagerly. “Everyone was so nice and welcoming at the food pantry.”

Matt agreed to go. The following Sunday, the family showed up at the Saddleback Church Lake Forest campus. Since they’d arrived a few minutes late, they sat outside near the kids’ play area while Pastor Rick spoke. They loved the music as well as Pastor Rick’s teaching and felt drawn to return. Wanting to find a campus closer to home, however, they decided to check out the Saddleback San Clemente campus the following week.

From the start, Candace and Matt fell in love with Saddleback Church. “All of those feelings from the first day I walked in didn’t change,” said Candace. “Everyone at church was welcoming and genuine, and Matt immediately agreed too.”

They continued going regularly, hardly able to contain their excitement when Sunday arrived. “My girls love the children’s church and learning about Jesus stories,” Candace said.  “They can’t wait to come back each week.”

For the first time in years, Candace and Matt were able to worship, learn and feel refreshed in a church environment. “We felt God working in our hearts and in the church,” Candace said. She especially noticed a big difference Matt, who has taken his faith in God to the next level.

“He has always been a good man, but we both did not let him lead our lives the way we knew he should,” she said. “After attending Saddleback, he began reading his Bible and praying all the time. Now, he constantly seeks God first in all our decisions. His fellow Marines at work ask him to pray with them and notice him take out his Bible. He is the same person, but he is a better version of himself because he lets God lead our lives.”

A few months after arriving, the couple decided to take Class 101 and become Saddleback members. After noticing there were no small groups specifically for military families, a neighboring friend agreed to host one bi-monthly, and the Clarks agreed to be co-hosts.  Candace and Matt also volunteered at various military events the church sponsored, including a backpack drive for the school on base, during which they stuffed backpacks with school supplies. Candace also volunteered for the military baby shower outreach. Some of her neighbors have started coming to Saddleback Church after attending the shower.

It was the genuine smiles on those volunteers’ faces that warmed Candace’s heart toward church again. “Sometimes volunteers might not feel like they are making a difference, or maybe they feel unimportant. But they made the biggest difference in our family’s lives,” she said. “If it weren’t for their willingness to serve with a joyful heart, we may not have found Saddleback Church and discovered the amazing community we’ve discovered since being a part of this church family. Our lives have changed forever because these volunteers said yes when God called them to serve.”

Candace and Matt thank God for Saddleback, a welcoming church they now happily call home. After years of searching and feeling discouraged, they have finally found a place to belong. Today, they enjoy a thriving community of friends and family on and off base. Candace’s sister recently moved two streets over from them, an event only God could have orchestrated. The cross-country move that once brought uncertainty has now become the biggest blessing they could have imagined.

As Candace reflects on that moment she walked into the Peace Center, she realizes it was the beginning of something big — something much more than a few bags of food.  Said Candace, “I went there to fill my cupboards, but I ended up finding my church.”

Click HERE to learn more about Saddleback's PEACE Center food pantries.

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