SANTA ANA, Calif.

“My thing has always been reaching out to the community — that’s where my heart is,” said Elder Betty Thompson, whose service to the Presbyterian Church has born decades of fruit from Mississippi to Lesotho.

In this case, ‘community’ is Santa Ana, Calif., the urban and immigrant heart of Orange County.

Thompson, considering the community and neighborhood surrounding First Presbyterian Church of Santa Ana, approached the local Wilson Elementary School. The school is located within one of the most densely populated areas of the city, with 85 percent of its families falling below the poverty line.

With a plan in mind of how she might help the church reach out to its community and the school, Thompson set up a meeting between the principal, Norris Perez, and one of the pastors of Santa Ana First, the Rev. Danny Jimenez.

As they began their meeting, Thompson got straight to the point.

“We thought you might need backpacks for the kids,” she said. Thompson had been active in other churches that gived backpacks to ‘needy’ schools and children, and assumed that the mission of the past would apply to the current situation.

The principal, as Thompson recounts the story, looked at them like they had two heads.

“I’ve done plenty of mission work — how can I still not have learned that it is about listening to needs, rather than assuming you already know what they are?” she said.

“We have a closetful of backpacks,” the principal said.

Thompson was quick to recover from her temporary ‘mission etiquette’ amnesia. “Of course, it hit me — maybe we don’t know what they need. Maybe, instead, we should ask,  ‘How could we be helpful?’”

To that question, Perez had a quick response.

“What our kids really need are books. The majority of our children don’t have even one book in their homes.”

Thompson also learned that Wilson Elementary had not had a book fair in three years because the majority of students can’t afford to buy books.

In describing the church’s concern for Wilson Elementary, First Presbyterian’s pastor the Rev. Lance Allen says it this way: “Our God is a God of justice. In a sense, justice has to do with leveling the field, in order to be sure that all people have equal opportunities in this world.”

For Allen, whose children grew up within a school district that had every advantage, when decisions are made that provide opportunities for some and eliminates opportunity for others, that is injustice.  His hope, and his encouragement to the First Presbyterian congregation, is that they might be able to offer one area in which the field could be leveled a bit.

Because of its challenges, Wilson Elementary had fallen far behind in reading scores for the past several years. At the same time, Thompson knew that her inner-city church could not afford to buy books for the children of Wilson Elementary — but that didn’t stop her.

“Since our church did not have the funds for such a project, we invited other churches to join us,” said Thompson, who is quick to credit the connectional church.

She went home from the meeting with Perez and called other churches in the Presbytery of Los Ranchos. Not knowing what kind of response she’d be able to get, Thompson promised the principal one book for every child — about 720 books.

The churches collected 5,000.

But Thompson and the other volunteers did not stop there. They asked Perez what else the kids might need.

“Our children could really use a good dictionary,” he said.

Most of the school’s children are not native English speakers, and many fall below the poverty line so don’t have access to a world of Google and dictionary.com.

The volunteers were able to provide dictionaries the second year. Their enthusiasm for Wilson Elementary was so contagious that it spilled over into the local neighborhood association, which agreed to double any funds that were raised by the group.

“My whole way of viewing ministry is that we are partners in this community, and now we are partners with Wilson School,” said Thompson, who just might ask you to give a book or two.

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.