It’s a cold December morning and people are lined up waiting to enter the fellowship hall. Reneé Jelsma and her team of volunteers offer hot coffee, baked goods, and a warm welcome to the guests who have come for the mobile food pantry. Shortly after, they get busy distributing. By the end of the morning, over 200 households will have walked through the doors and will have received not only food but also warm blankets and gift bags filled with extra soup and hot chocolate for the winter.
This scene is rather new in the life of American Reformed Church in DeMotte, IN. A few years ago members were largely unaware of social needs in their little town, or that food insecurity was a real issue in their county. And few were directly involved in some type of “missional living.” Just three years ago, the mobile food pantry would not have existed as a regular ministry. Two years ago, there would not have been a program—in partnership with local non-profit Food Finders—at a school to provide backpacks of food for under-resourced children; nor would the church have taken on a student mentoring program. And the church certainly would not have been viewed as a missional leader in their community.
One of the church’s catalysts for this change is Reneé Jelsma, Small Groups Coordinator, mom, and a grandmother with years of ministry experience whose life seems to have hit the acceleration pedal on transformation and ministry growth through her experience with Faithwalking. For most of her life Reneé believed she was a second-class citizen. She was afraid to draw attention to herself or attempt great things because of fear that others would put her in her place.
It wasn’t until her current transformation journey with Faithwalking that she finally believed she was truly cherished by God. That affirmation has given her the courage to give leadership to risky endeavors. “I feel like I am now living more fully into the life that God created me for, the ‘epic life,’” she explains. “The epic life is even better than a good life because it is beyond cultural expectations. It is living more obediently into God’s expectations. It’s not comfortable, but it’s incredibly satisfying.”
When Reneé started Faithwalking, she wasn’t aiming for the epic life, not even “the good life.” She just knew she wanted to become all of the woman God wanted her to be. Rather than shy away from the discomfort of leading, she has found joy in obeying God and in taking the risk to love and minister more deeply to others. In just the past two years, she has served as a small group leader at 101 retreats, completed 201, completed the leadership course, catalyzed a Faithwalking team, facilitated and presented at four 101 retreats, started teaching her third 201, coached, did orientations for coaches, serve as a head coach, and will next year become a teacher for the leadership course!
Besides catalyzing missional outreaches and serving as a Faithwalking leader, Reneé has also started a seminary degree, something she never would have dreamed of doing a short while ago. She reflects, “I am living into being all the woman God created me to be and I have taken on more things that I have never done before. I have never taken so many risky steps of obedience, or been so scared, so thrilled, or so satisfied. Everyday God amazes me by what He is doing in my life or in the lives of those I am working with.”
God is using Reneé’s church to serve as a model of integrity for their community. She shares, “Our culture has the opinion that churches never do what they say they are going to do. As a result of our consistency in serving the school in our backpack ministry, our reputation with our community has now gone sky high, which has opened the door for the school to trust us with the next step of mentoring the students. They know we are committed to doing things well. They thank us constantly for doing what we do for their students. They insist that the community needs to know what we are doing. We now have a wonderful relationship with the school. I am regularly contacted by organizations and churches that want to be part of what God is doing.”
With all these recent changes, Reneé wonders what God has in store for her next. It may not be comfortable or easy, but “epic” is starting to feel more “normal” in her life. Faithwalking is creating catalysts like Reneé to restore communities to God’s design.