For the sixth time in as many years, Cumberland Community Church, at 3110 Sports Avenue in Smyrna, invited families from nearby Argyle Elementary School to their Faith in Action Back to School Celebration on Sunday, which included outdoor activities for kids, free haircuts and a gift for every student — a new backpack full of the school supplies they’ll need this year.
Rob Irvine is the church’s “pastor beyond the walls,” meaning he organizes all of the church’s outside activities, including the Faith in Action events. Irvine, who has been with the church for 14 years, said organizers expected about 1,000 to 1,200 people to attend the Argyle back to school event.
“We invite the whole Argyle Elementary School family here, which is about 500 families,” Irvine said. “And we get pretty close to, I would say, 95 percent participation of the families. So mom and dad and all the kids come.”
The kids were excited for the rock climbing wall, the cotton candy and the carnival games, while their parents were excited for the haircuts and the school supplies.
Irvine said the church provided about 200 haircuts at last year’s back to school event. Stylists from the community, some of whom aren’t members of the church, volunteer their time to help the community, he added.
“These parents have a lot of challenges. They’re trying to make ends meet, and haircuts aren’t cheap. So we provide this,” Irvine said.
The biggest draw at the event was the backpacks full of school supplies. Irvine said the church receives school supply lists for each grade from Argyle Elementary in May. Over the course of the summer, church members donate items on the lists and the church organizes the supplies by grade into backpacks. Irvine said there were families gathered an hour before the event to get a ticket for a backpack.
Irvine explained the church gives out tickets with a time and grade level to keep the process organized. Even though the event is for Argyle Elementary Students, Irvine said students from other schools are not turned away — they just have to wait until all the Argyle students have received a backpack.
The church had about 600 backpacks ready to give to families on Sunday, Irvine said.
Among the other offerings Sunday were information tables where parents could apply for free or reduced lunch at Argyle Elementary for their kids and a “Little Clinic,” a partnership with Kroger to give parents and kids prescreening exams. Also in attendance was Peachcare for Kids, which offers health insurance for children at low rates.
Parents could also sign their younger children up to enroll in the “Little School,” a preschool the church started last year. Irvine said the program, which takes place at the church, had 25 kidsenrolled last year and will likely have 25 kids enrolled again this year.
“Because of the Latino demographic, the kids aren’t really ready for school because of the language barrier, mostly,” Irvine said. “And so we’ve started Little School, a preschool in partnership with the YMCA of Atlanta. And that’s been a great partnership. We’re now taking the kids from these families who wouldn’t have the opportunity for a preschool experience.”
The partnerships the church has fostered have been fruitful for the church and the community, Irvine said.
“What we’ve realized is that the needs of any community can’t be met by any one church or organization,” he said. “And so we have worked really hard to build partnerships with both religious and nonreligious organizations to come together and try to answer the needs of the community together.”
The history of giving back
According to Alan Scott, the church’s lead pastor, Cumberland Community Church organizes three or four “Faith in Action” events each year. The church doesn’t have normal service when there is a Faith in Action event, and Scott says they lose between $85,000 and $100,000 over the course of a year because they don’t take up offerings on those days.
Eight years ago, before the Faith in Action events, the church was small and going broke, Scott said.
“Eight years ago, this church was sinking — less than 200 people, including kids. This is a huge building; nobody was here,” he said. “We were in the red to the tune of $380,000 a year, so it was falling apart.”
Church officials met with representatives of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta and were going to sell the property, but when they were told the church’s 200 members would probably not be a part of the new church, Scott, who has been with the church for eight years, said the church decided not to sell. Instead, they decided to take bold action.
“We said, ‘What if we just gave ourselves away to the community? And if we close our doors that way, at least we go down in a blaze of glory.’”
So, in 2008, the church organized their first Faith in Action event: They brought about 200 volunteers to Argyle Elementary school and applied fresh coats of paint and landscaped the grounds. Since then, Scott said the church members have given “makeovers” to Campbell Middle, Campbell High, Belmont Hills Elementary, Brumby Elementary and Osborne High schools.
“Word got out,” Scott said. “The first few times, the schools were like, ‘OK, what can a church do? Maybe rake some leaves.’ Then they started realizing that when six to eight hundred people show up for three or four hours, that is a bunch of manhours that can totally transform a place.”
Since the church began their Faith in Action program, the church membership has swelled; Scott estimates the church has a little more than 1,000 members. Scott said the church’s finances have also improved, despite the loss of money from offerings and the increased expenses the church has now.
Scott said Irvine’s efforts to reach out to the community are the reason the church is successful.
“What Rob has been awesome in doing is taking a church building designed for just Sunday mornings and turning it into a community center … to really meet the needs of people in the community, which we think really is ‘church.’”