Our Journey with the Ronald McDonald House
Nate Ray is our Stadium Village Site Pastor. But early in Jacob’s Well’s story, Nate also worked as a part-time coffee shop barista. In fact, it was while wearing that Starbucks apron that he stumbled upon one of the local community’s biggest needs.
“I had a customer come through and tell me about his two sick boys,” Nate says. The man was staying at the local Ronald McDonald House as his twin sons received treatment for life-threatening diseases at children’s hospitals in the area.
In and out of hospital rooms, dealing with diagnoses and treatment options, scheduling appointments with doctors and specialists, and keeping track of mountains of medical bills and insurance claims, all while displaced from home and living wherever treatment might be found makes for a difficult season of life. It can wear a person down. Seeing a family dealing with such serious stress stirred something in Nate, as well as in the hearts of others who were part of our Jacob’s Well community when he relayed the story. That coffee shop conversation eventually blossomed into a relationship between a brave, but hurting, family and a church learning more everyday about the difficulty and pain present right in their backyard.
“They’re a block away,” Nate says of the Ronald McDonald House, and the often-overburdened families within.
The people of our Jacob’s Well community started volunteering their time to help ease this family’s burden. All the stress parents at the Ronald McDonald House deal with is compounded by the fact that being a parent is a full-time job — there’s no “recharging period” for the people who perhaps need one the most.
“Jacob’s Well would send a couple volunteers to watch their kids so the parents could shower,” Nate says. Interacting with this family and others at the Ronald McDonald House put it on our hearts as a community to help in any way we could.
But just as the relationship between church and family began to deepen, there came a devastating reminder that getting involved wouldn’t come without pain. One of the twin boys responded to treatment. The other passed away at the age of 8.
The family asked Nate, still a relatively new pastor at this point, to do the funeral service. “They didn’t know any other pastor or anything like that.” Nate pauses.“I was young. I never thought I’d do a funeral before a wedding.”
Walking alongside a family grieving the loss of a son is no easy road. But what emerged was first and foremost a beautiful relationship with a young family, as well as a collective determination within our church to make supporting the other families of the Ronald McDonald House a regular commitment.
“There’s a lot of hurting families and a lot of brokenness,” says Nate. “And I’m not promising we can go in there and be the solution. I mean, how do you help someone grieve the loss of a child? I don’t know. But I think our presence is necessary in that place.”
“God gave us the gift of His presence through His Son Jesus and now His Holy Spirit, and His people are called to follow Him by giving the gift of our presence to our world.”
We as Jacob’s Well believe that church community isn’t something that happens just on Sunday mornings. One way we put this into practice is in LifeGroups, small groups that meet once a week to help us connect with one another on a more personal level. The hope is that as LifeGroups share their lives with one another, they’ll also start to collectively share the mission of the church, working together to impact the world around them. These concepts of shared life and shared mission led one LifeGroup to take a deeper step into regular servanthood.
Dave Disselkamp and Rachel Brown lead a LifeGroup in Dinkytown on the edge of campus. Occasionally, each LifeGroup will go out together on service events to places like Ronald McDonald House, but Dave and Rachel wanted to create something more steady than the hit-and-run nature volunteer work can sometimes take on.
So now, every other week, Dave and Rachel’s LifeGroup spends their gathering time volunteering at Ronald McDonald House, serving parents and children in need and fostering relationships with families that can feel isolated in a new and strange community.
“This semester we’re reading this book,” Rachel says, pointing to a copy of “The Hole in our Gospel” by Richard Stearns. “The chapter we just talked about really emphasizes how Jesus cared about the whole person. He spent time with people. He didn’t just preach at them, he healed them.”
“We want to care about the same things.”
The LifeGroup now spends their Tuesday nights working to do just that. One week they gather as a LifeGroup to discuss their reading. The next week they put it into action, helping out with arts and crafts night with the kids of Ronald McDonald House.
It’s interesting Christian service because it’s truly all about the service. Ronald McDonald House rules don’t allow volunteers to bring up their faith while serving. For Jacob’s Well, that’s a constant reminder of the need to put service first.
“I think a lot of Christians are really bad about listening first and serving first, and we just come in with an already-existing agenda,” Nate says. “I think people are really turned off to sales pitchy Christianity.”
“We want to present the message of Jesus in a way that connects with people’s heart needs… and if I don’t take the time to listen and serve first, then I’m not going to be able to present the gospel message clearly.”
Rachel agrees. “Our hope is that Ronald McDonald House sees Jacob’s Well as people who are available and have time to help.”
But in addition to the help they provide to burdened families, Dave and Rachel are quick to point out what the service does to help their LifeGroup with those core concepts of shared life and shared mission in the process.
“Something we can struggle with as LifeGroups is shared mission,” Dave says. “Shared life is pretty easy, just hanging out with each other, living life together. But shared mission — continually serving, not just once or twice a semester — is a challenge.”
That shared mission, impacting the world around and outside the church, is central to what we as Jacob’s Well believe.
“I’ve heard this quote:” Nate says. “If your church was ripped out of your community, would anybody notice?”
It’s that mindset that now drives us to try to impact the hurting and needy right in our own backyard.
“We believe the gospel calls us to more than just a personal response,” says Nate. “The gospel is bigger than that — it saves us from something, but it also saves us for something.”
Even something that begins as simply as a cup of coffee for a weary stranger.