Shortly after Saddleback Church opened its food pantry in 2009, volunteer Rana Muncy helped a woman carry a week’s worth of groceries to her car. The woman led Muncy toward a beautiful burgundy Lexus, but as they got closer, Muncy saw through the tinted windows all the woman’s clothes and belongings stacked inside.
“I realized she was living in her car,” Muncy says.
The woman represents many Orange County residents that Stewardship Pastor Chris Goulard calls “the new poor.” In 2009, the affluent area found itself one of three epicenters of the mortgage industry crisis. The recession hit hard in other ways too: 15 percent of Saddleback’s own members were unemployed, many of them facing foreclosure, homelessness and hunger.
A food pantry was only the beginning of a solution. Moved with compassion, Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren tasked Membership Pastor Tommy Hilliker with starting the PEACE Community Resource Center, a hub of free community services housed first in an empty warehouse, then, as it grew, in an adjacent and more proper two-story building right on Saddleback’s campus. Because the PEACE Center is located at the church, it’s easily accessible to both church members and locals.
To decide which services to provide, Hilliker first assessed the community’s needs. A large immigrant population meant ESL classes. A lack of affordable health care merited a medical clinic. Children struggling in school required a Homework Club. Other services, like career counseling, legal advice, support groups, first aid training and MSI (Medical Services Initiative) application processing, emerged as Saddleback members volunteered to lead them.
Through word of mouth, people have come—more than 144,000 from Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Santa Ana and beyond. Some pull up in Mercedes, while others, disabled or chronically homeless, carpool. Each person brings a story, whether of job loss, battling addiction or falling behind on a mortgage.
“The beautiful thing is, every person is loved, listened to and prayed for individually,” says Muncy, now the center’s director.
Doing the loving and listening are trained Saddleback volunteers, who log more than 4,000 hours each month. The Center has also linked arms with advocates at local grocery stores, nonprofits, schools and even the county government.
“The county had never worked with a church before,” Goulard says, “but now they send people here to sign up for MSI instead of clinics or hospitals. They see the difference when we treat people with God’s love and respect.”
Respect salves the shame of seeking help. Andrea, a 60-something Saddleback member and food pantry volunteer, struggled to admit she was unemployed and living in a rented pop-up tent with no running water. But the center helped her find transitional housing and a job; now she puts her arm around others, prays for them and tells them Jesus is the reason she’s still smiling. She’s one of the reasons why 1,850 of the people the center has served have come to know Christ.
Lake Forest, Calif.
Lead Pastor: Rick Warren
Affiliation: Southern Baptist
Locations: 8 (plus 4 international campuses)
A 2013 Outreach 100 Church
No. 29 Fastest-Growing
No. 6 Largest