Modesto church gets to know its neighbors

When Leah Knipe looks back at what she did in 2009, here's some of what she'll see: starting a community garden, painting over graffiti and rounding up Christmas presents for almost 50 needy families at Martone Elementary.

She also spent the year knocking on strangers' doors and saying, "Hello. I'm from Modesto Church of the Brethren. I want to help improve the neighborhood. What is your ideal neighborhood and how can I help you achieve that goal?"

Knipe, 27, is Modesto Church of the Brethren's first community outreach coordinator. The church has long worked on citywide issues, such as serving meals to the homeless and working with Habitat for Humanity and Sierra Vista Children's Home.

But until now, the church did little work in its own back yard, said Pastor Russ Matteson.

With a grant from the church's state headquarters, Church of the Brethren hired Knipe in late 2008 to connect with the west Modesto neighborhood surrounding the church, on Woodland Avenue west of Carpenter Road.

The effort is meant to serve the community, not recruit new worshippers, Matteson said.

"More people may come (to church), but we're doing this because we understand that this is what we're supposed to be about as a church in a community," Matteson said. "Our calling as a church is to be a part of the community in which God has put us. We exist within this little geographic part of the world, and the truth is, we don't know our neighbors very well."

Gung-ho enthusiasm

Church of the Brethren teaches "practical faith." It encourages worshippers to do God's work in daily life through service and building community, Matteson said.

A one-time social worker and event planner, Knipe has a gung-ho enthusiasm fueled by a need to serve others. The word "dynamo" comes to mind as she describes how she approaches her job. When she was first hired, Knipe got a map and drew a pink square marking off a half-mile radius around the church.

Then she gathered demographic data about her target area. The neighborhood, Knipe learned, is a blend of commuters and renters, mostly whites and Latinos with a small population of Asians. On some blocks, six-figure earners live next door to families struggling to stay above the poverty line.

Next, Knipe got to know the neighborhood the old-fashioned way. She stationed herself at Charles M. Sharp Park on Torrid Avenue and talked to residents.

She was nervous at first, and took pains to explain that she wasn't out to proselytize. Then she plunged ahead and asked people what they worried about in their neighborhood and what they wanted to see change.

"What could we do, as your neighbor, to help the neighborhood?" Knipe would ask. People told her they were concerned about graffiti and the park's lack of lights. They worried about gangs, drag racers and houses where people seemed to be selling drugs.

Knipe said she thought people would just "magically" turn to the church for help with those problems. But progress has come in fits and starts.

At first, the only response to the four professionally designed mailers she sent out was a sprinkling of phone calls about the church's yoga class.

Small victories

She's learned to keep her natural impatience in check and appreciate small victories. She had one in March, when 53 people showed up to a community meeting she organized with a Modesto police crime prevention officer. Only about half as many people came to a follow-up meeting in November, but Knipe felt better when she realized that many were new faces.

Some of the seeds Knipe has planted are starting to bear fruit. Police say the church's outreach effort could even help fight crime. Kaci Avrett, the Modesto police crime prevention officer working with Knipe, said a recent neighborhood meeting yielded eight new Neighborhood Watch groups.

"It's amazing, because I don't think I've ever heard of a church having an outreach coordinator like that," Avrett said. "What (Leah's) doing is very broad. It's going above and beyond. It's absolutely a useful tool for me."

Kim Weisser, who heads a Neighborhood Watch group near Church of the Brethren with her husband, Steve, said Knipe's outreach efforts helped her connect with other Neighborhood Watch leaders in the area. It's been five years since Weisser started Neighborhood Watch on her block, but until now she's never met coordinators from nearby streets, Weisser said.

"With Leah, we now have a hub," Weisser said. "If something's going on, we can call Leah, and she can alert everybody else."

Partnerships with school

Knipe also has built partnerships with nearby Alberta Martone Elementary School. The church and PTA co-hosted a free harvest festival with hot dogs and a haunted house. The school, which doesn't have an auditorium, has held its holiday concert for years at the church. But this year the church is hosting a reception for parents after the concert.

Lately Knipe has seen evidence that the church is becoming the trusted resource she hoped it would. Neighbors have e-mailed her to report suspicious activity they're afraid to tell police about. Knipe is thrilled about a neighborhood couple that wants to start a Neighborhood Watch on their block.

"It's really nice to finally know that someone else is like, 'Yeah, we can do this!' " Knipe gushes, throwing a fist in the air.

The fragile neighborhood bonds that Knipe has worked to build could come to an end in 2010. The economic downturn means Church of the Brethren won't be getting the second half of the grant that funded Knipe's position. Now the church is looking at other ways to keep Knipe on staff.

Knipe said she is reluctant to tell neighbors about the money problem, because she doesn't want to create the impression the church is asking for money. Aggressive fund-raising clashes with the church's "live simply" philosophy, Knipe said.

She's also worried neighbors will think the church is abandoning them.

"We want to be here for them," Knipe said. "We don't want to let them down."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378. Follow her at .

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