On Sept. 10 the ELCA will celebrate the 10th anniversary of “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday, an annual day of service in which congregations come together to lend a hand, help build a future and repair their communities.
It was introduced in 2013 as a special day of service across the church to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ELCA’s formation. Service in the community wasn’t a new concept in the ELCA, a church that is grounded in loving and serving the neighbor and in striving for justice and wholeness in the world.
“‘God’s work. Our hands.’ Sunday is one of the ways in which we live out our purpose to invite more people to know Jesus and discover community, justice and love,” said Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA presiding bishop. “When one congregation gathers to serve its neighbors, they are one church helping in their community. But this is also the entire church. This is how we are church together responding to God’s call to love and serve.”
Recalling the initial day of service, Jon Anderson said, “We were worshiping through our service in the community, so we were a visible church.” Anderson, who is currently director of rural ministry at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., served as bishop of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod from 2003 to 2021.
“The idea that we could have a … service day across the ELCA,” he added, “that local churches could decide what they wanted to do based on the needs of their community and the capacity of their congregation, and that they could place when they did it on the calendar to fit their needs—all of that helped it take off.”
As it expanded, congregations saw the opportunity to partner with other congregations, social ministry organizations and interfaith groups in the community. Anderson said “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday has been “like yeast to help the congregational mission awareness grow.”
Yellow is the color for the day
The meaningful mission and impact that congregations experienced in 2013 made it evident that the effort would become an annual event. Bright yellow T-shirts designed especially for the day added to the enthusiasm.
“Although we do service outreach a lot in our congregation, I remember thinking that the yellow shirts were what made it seem special, really made us unified. It emphasized how many people were all in this together,” said Steven Bond, pastor of Advent Lutheran Church, Mentor, Ohio. “When we started reading reports of other churches across the country, it just was a great feeling to know that we were part of something much larger than ourselves.”
Another meaningful outcome is how intergenerational relationships develop and deepen. “It’s a great experiment to try to put young and older people together to see what develops from that,” Anderson said. “If you sit and paint picnic tables like I did with people for about two hours, you get a sense of who people are that you’re working with.”
Bond agreed: “It became one of our guiding principles, that everything we did was to focus on being intergenerational. ‘God’s work. Our hands.’ Sunday was our first intentional way of doing that.”
“Although we do service outreach a lot in our congregation, I remember thinking that the yellow shirts were what made it seem special, really made us unified. It emphasized how many people were all in this together.”
In Omaha, Neb., “generous giving and compassionate service has always been part of who Lord of Love is,” said its pastor, Becky Sells. “This is a day when we all look forward to gathering intergenerationally to do acts of love toward others.”
Sells said the congregation has discovered additional ways throughout the year “to do God’s work using our hands and resources to make a difference.” Hands from Lord of Love have planted a garden to support a local food pantry, made blankets for those in emergency situations and moved furniture to support refugee resettlement.
“Our church’s name, Lord of Love, encourages us always to remember that when we share or care for others, we do so in the name of our Lord with the gifts of our hands and our hearts that God has first given to us,” Sells said.
“It is a very special Sunday,” said Samuel Nieva, pastor of Pueblo de Dios Lutheran Church in Compton, Calif. The congregation has been serving the community for 20 years, distributing food and clothing. On “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday, members who work in fields such as dentistry, nursing and hairstyling offer their skills and services to the community.
“It is an effective way for people to discover our heart of service and love for God,” he said, “helping them, for example, with a dental cleaning, a haircut, vital-sign checks and timely advice. The community recognizes that our congregation is a church that practices the integral mission of word, sacrament and the action of social justice … that we are a congregation that is interested in its spiritual and material needs.”
Renee Patterson, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran in Shoreview, Minn., said the day of service has made her congregation more aware of how they can make a difference in their community. Members often suggest partnering with local organizations to increase the impact of service opportunities. “They’re starting to connect what happens at Shepherd of the Hills to what happens in the rest of the world,” she said. “It has become part of our DNA, part of what we do as a church. It’s common language. Everybody at our church knows what ‘day of service’ means.”
“It is an effective way for people to discover our heart of service and love for God.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic many congregations continued caring for their communities on the day of service. They organized projects for individuals and families that were virtual, outdoors, physically distanced or drive-through.
“While 2023 looks different than 2020, there are still unique challenges in our communities where we can represent God’s hand in caring for people and creation,” said Susan Brown, leader of ministry communication and coordination at New Life Lutheran Church in Bolingbrook, Ill. “One of those new challenges is just getting people to connect in person again. Whether that is bringing people together to serve or partnering with other community groups to work together, God’s work isn’t limited to only what we as one congregation can do. We joyfully anticipate where we might be led to new opportunities to serve and new people to connect with.”
Through acts of service, we pursue justice and seek peace. “We live in a world of hopelessness, inequality and adversity,” Nieva said. “Life is not the same for everyone, especially for those who are out of opportunities, such as the undocumented or people who have not had an encounter with Christ, who are the majority of our members. For them we give flavor and light to their lives, building with God’s help an opportunity to achieve material and spiritual goals.”
As “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday continues to build among ELCA congregations and related ministries, so does the opportunity for members to embrace how their faith connects to their lives out in the community and the world.
“We oftentimes end up creating the church to take care of things inside the church, and that’s where most of the energy of the church goes, when actually we’re called to be the scattered church,” Anderson said. “So the church is being the church out at work right now, and people are living their faith in serving and [as] God’s work is happening through their hands.
“God loves us, God shows God’s grace to us, and then we sing our lives as a hymn of praise to God. So what is ‘God’s work. Our hands.’ Sunday? It’s a day we sing our praise to God for God’s grace and love.”
Over 10 years our hands have …
- Cleaned parks, beaches and roadways.
- Collected and donated food items for shelters and pantries.
- Assembled backpacks, care packages and hygiene bags.
- Repaired and painted homes, classrooms and community centers.
- Written letters and thank-you notes to military members, first responders and members of Congress.
- Harvested produce for local food pantries.
- Sewed quilts and knitted blankets.
- Prepared meals for volunteers.
- Greeted homebound members and residents of nursing homes.
- Performed random acts of kindness.