It all started with a live nativity scene—or without one, depending on your view. 

Steve Wright, pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Ladera Ranch, Calif., got a call one day from a community organization asking if the 10-year-old congregation would like to participate in the community’s live nativity.

“It prompted me to ask the question ‘What can we do not just for our church, but for the community as a whole—something that is not just inviting them to a religious service, but perhaps inviting them to meet and experience God in a different way?’” Wright said. 

It was a question that found resonance within the congregation.

For Kjersten Damron, it was one of those conversations that just kept coming up.

“We wondered what do you do in a community like ours—a community that seems to have it all but one that has hit upon hard times due to the housing crisis and the economic situation,” Damron said.

Village Presbyterian was planted in Ladera Ranch about the time that the community itself was founded. It was to be a planned community offering a fresh start and the ability to start from the ground up.

But 10 years in, it is a community that has begun to deal with the realities of life beyond perfectly manicured streets and planned neighborhoods. Existing needs are most often not acknowledged in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses.

“We realized that the way to engage our community in a real and meaningful way really came down to one thing: truly loving your neighbor,” Damron said.

But the congregation wasn’t sure how to move beyond Sunday mornings and church walls.

“We wondered, how can we help people meet Jesus during the Christmas season?” Wright said. “What kept coming back to me was Matthew 25 and this idea that we meet Jesus when we meet those who are in need.”

They decided that their first act, under the banner ‘Share the Love, Ladera’ would be to host a food drive in front of local markets and then invite the community to work together at a food pantry.  They hoped that this would allow people in the community the opportunity to be generous in whatever way was available to them.

One of the most significant moments for Wright during that first Share the Love, Ladera experiment was with an atheist.

“I’m an atheist—can I be a part of this?” she asked Wright.

“Do you love your neighbor? If so, then you are in, because that is what we are about,” he replied.

What happened was a subtle but significant shift.

“Rather than ‘How do we as the church go serve others?’ it became ‘How can we help others to share and care for each other?’” Wright said.

A Muslim woman participated in the trip to the food bank and expressed her gratitude at being included. “You usually have to belong to a church to be able to do something like this,” she said.

“Inviting people to church wasn’t the goal,” Wright said, adding that the goal was to care for the community.

 “Neighbors caring for neighbors is our ultimate agenda and if that is not what the church is about, then we are just in marketing and we are not even sure what the product is,” Wright said. “I think we’ve always got to be finding where are the creative expressions of how we engage our neighborhood.”

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.