April 14, 2016

Happy National Volunteer Week! 

Across the US, April 10th-16th has been designated as National Volunteer Week. As such, it is only fitting that Communities of Transformation has chosen to spotlight a few Volunteers from our ministry. These Volunteers help offer insight into the importance of building community, what it takes to start a Community, the impact of the lasting relationships formed through this initiative, and the hospitality provided by COT Volunteers on a weekly basis. We hope that you enjoy hearing from our Volunteers as much as we enjoy serving alongside them. And to our Volunteers, thank you for being willing to give of your time, talents, gifts, service, and witness.

Thank you to our COT VISTA members! 

COT VISTAs at their Pre-service Orientation in May 2015, left to right: Suzann Tibbs, Eufaula VISTA; Jamie Stange, previous Selma VISTA; Ruth Ann Powers, Phenix City VISTA; Deborah Marriott, Brewton VISTA; Heather Allen, Communications VISTA; Caroline Pinckard, Dothan VISTA.

During National Volunteer Week, Communities of Transformation wants to take this opportunity to say “Thank you!” to each of the five Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) members who have served this year. The VISTAs work diligently each day in their respective communities, coordinating the all-volunteer Communities of Transformation initiative. 
VISTA was founded in 1965 as a national service program to fight poverty in America. The goals of VISTA have a direct correlation to COT – to engage the community in addressing poverty at the local level.
Each VISTA member makes a year-long, full-time commitment to serve on a specific project, in this case Communities of Transformation. With passion, commitment, and hard work, our COT VISTA members have developed this initiative. They join over 7,000 Americans across the nation who are also engaged as VISTAs each year. 
Pictured here are the women who are Communities of Transformation VISTA members. We are so grateful for their commitment to the work of COT this past year. In addition, we are delighted to announce that seven additional new VISTAs will be coming on staff in less than two months. More information about these new COT contributors will be available in upcoming newsletters. 
To learn more about Americorps VISTA,  visit their website by CLICKING HERE!!

Dan Morris on the heart of COT

Dan Morris, pictured left, is a United Methodist pastor who was instrumental in building Mobile's COT Community. 

For Dan Morris, pastor of Daphne United Methodist Church, community is the heart of COT. Dan loves to be involved because he loves seeing others respond to the call of community, he loves seeing a diverse group of people gathered at a common meal, and he loves how COT builds capacity.
Dan heard about Communities of Transformation, then Circles of Transformation, at a Conference Core Team Meeting when he was Chairman of the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits for the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Having previous experience with people living in poverty, Dan believed COT was a model that would work: “It’s about relationships and not continuing to mindlessly give to people.” However, Dan was thoughtful and intentional about supporting COT. “It was a slow, detailed process of thinking through what we are trying to accomplish. We had to understand who we were partnering with ideologically.” Dan knew it would be tough to help others rethink missions as something not just outside of their community and overseas, but also as how people are in relationship with their surrounding community. Dan knew it was worth it though. He believed that most people were longing to use their resources responsibly, in a way that would bless people instead of enabling them to continue in unproductive patterns of living.
One way Dan sees community in weekly COT meetings is through the meals. Every meeting begins with a meal, inviting people from all walks of life to come together. When you look around the room as people eat their dinner and catch up on their week, it is almost impossible to tell who is a Participant, Volunteer, pastor, or staff. There are people eating together who are all ages, races, financial situations, and backgrounds. For Dan, the experience is holy and moving, and he likens it to Communion: “It really speaks to me on a personal level . . . when we come together and share a meal, which is so basic to the Christian faith. At the center of all of our sanctuaries is a table. People overlook that table and think it’s there only ornamentally. But it is there truly for God to commune with us and us with each other.”

Dan also finds sitting together in the circle to be a holy encounter. “Every meeting we end in the circle for Affirmations. And although you may have never met some there before that night, there is something absolutely sacramental in ways that I struggle to describe about what it means to go around and express a sense of appreciation for the people there. It’s more than the power of affirmation – it’s the power of blessing, the power of seeing beyond a person’s present circumstances to see that there’s hope and goodness that is going to be discovered.” And though there is nothing overtly religious about affirming one another, Dan believes that the Spirit moves through the affirmations and creates a holy experience.
For many, the feeling of community experienced through these meals and affirmations is easy to take for granted. However, Dan stresses that it is something missing in the lives of so many who come to COT. Those with a more stable and secure background have often, if not always, had someone looking out for their wellbeing – Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, educators, parents, relatives, friends, and many others there to catch us when we fell or to support our endeavors. There were many surrounding us and cheering us on through our “firsts,” through the big moments in life. “That’s not there for a lot of people living in poverty,” Dan clarifies. “But when they discover the power of the Church that is there for them, that may not be assembled as it is on Sunday morning, but it is assembled in COT, it’s huge! And I can assure you that what COT has they don’t sell at Walmart!”
Dan sums the power of COT up perfectly when he says, “That’s the most important thing – the Christian community of gathering and seeking God’s help and blessing for each other’s wellbeing. That’s the heart of this.”  

An Interview with Lou: Starting a Community from scratch

Lou Martin (far right) stands with Participants as they celebrate completing the training portion of COT. 

Lou Martin is a retired teacher involved with COT Eufaula. She has been a member of the Leadership Team since the beginning of COT Eufaula, has served as the meal coordinator, and is now the Participant Trainer.
How did you get involved in COT?
I got involved in COT the very first time that Fred and Laurel Blackwell spoke at our church at the request of our minister, Robbins Sims; I think it was in 2013.
What drew you to this ministry?
At the time I was teaching a preschool program for the Eufaula Housing Authority and working directly with low-income families. So many of them seemed trapped in a vicious cycle with no hope to better or change their futures in any way. Those who did try always seemed to run into obstacles that defeated them in the end, and they gave up trying to better their circumstances. COT offered a different approach, offering a hand up, not a hand out, by building relationships within the community. I could see how it just might work and was excited about it!
What do you think sets COT apart from other ministries in Eufaula?
COT is different from other ministries in that it emphasizes building relationships where everyone is on an equal footing and all learn from one another. The Volunteers do not tell the Participants what they should be doing but rather offer support and advice and a network of people to help them reach the goals they set for themselves . . . All of this is done in a nonjudgmental setting.
Suzann Tibbs (COT Eufaula VISTA) mentioned that you might have some valuable insight into how to gather a Leadership Team and cast the vision for COT throughout your community. What was it like starting up a COT community from scratch?
Starting up a COT Community from scratch was not easy . . . We started with a small dedicated core group which met often to brainstorm and try to figure things out. Laurel was a great help. We identified key people in the community whose support would be needed for success. We had several meetings where people from all parts of our community were invited to hear about COT. From these we were able to expand our Leadership Team and were able to start making concrete plans, such as where to meet? How to finance? How to get Participants? How to get Volunteers? How to provide meals and childcare? We got churches to offer studies of When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity. We talked to civic groups and city leaders.  We mailed letters to ALL the churches in our area, but we learned quickly that a face-to-face approach was necessary. Our greatest boost toward actually getting started was having Suzann say she would like to be the staff person! It was a long process with much trial and error and lots of praying and faith that God was in this with us.
What was your favorite thing about starting a Community?
My favorite thing about starting COT has been seeing people from all parts of our community come together across economic, social, racial, and religious lines to work together for GOOD. It is so heartwarming to see these diverse people having fun, food, and fellowship together, laughing and maybe crying, but glad to be included in this uplifting experience.
You’ve read a lot of books that relate to COT – Bridges to Sustainable Communities (Philip E. DeVol), What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty (Bill Ehlig and Ruby Payne, Ph.D.), Toxic Charity (Robert Lupton), etc. How do you think these helped or impacted your involvement with COT?
All of the books I have read helped me to look through a different lens at those less fortunate than I and to better understand their circumstances in life. These books have made me appreciate the difficulty of breaking the cycle of generational poverty. Toxic Charity explains in layman’s terms how so many of the ways we try to help are really harmful. I think anyone who wants to be involved in COT needs to read some of these materials.
What else would you say to anyone thinking about starting a Community?
I say go for it! But don’t expect everyone to jump on board to support your efforts and don’t expect it to happen quickly. Pray and pray some more for God’s guidance and listen to how He speaks to your heart. Find a small group of like-minded believers who are willing to work hard to get it off the ground. KEEP THE FAITH! Don’t be discouraged — you will have difficulties and setbacks to overcome, but in the end, you will be part of something that can change your community by bettering a few lives at the time. And you will be a changed person in the process!

Andy Gartman, clergy engaging with COT on a personal level

Andy Gartman stands with Edna Whatley at the Dothan June 2015 Celebration for Participants who had completed the training portion of Communities of Transformation, then Circles of Transformation.

One of the most crucial steps in building a COT Community is having a local pastor on board, supporting the initiative, offering a space in his church for weekly meetings or for a staff office, and especially helping others glimpse the heart of this local outreach effort. Some Communities are blessed with multiple pastors who provide this essential foundation for the ministry. Some Communities also have clergy who are engaged in COT at a very personal level.
Reverend Andy Gartman of Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Dothan, Alabama, is one such individual. Every week, Andy joins the COT Dothan Community where it meets at Evergreen Presbyterian Church. He arrives early enough to help Jose Maya set up for the night. Jose is a Participant who has completed the training portion of COT and is now matched with Volunteer Les Pinckard in a small circle of support. The two lay out name tags, organize meal supplies, prepare beverages, place chairs for the Good News circle, and whatever else needs to be done in preparation for the meeting. As Volunteers and Participants arrive, Andy welcomes everyone with his friendly, energetic personality.

Andy is also fun loving. According to Dothan VISTA Caroline Pinckard, “COT is very fortunate to have Andy as one of our Volunteers because he is dependable and knows how to break the ice in the group.” One such occasion that Caroline remembers fondly is a bowling outing the group took last year. “Andy showed up with his own personal bowling ball in a black bag. We knew we were in trouble then as he kept hitting strike after strike.” Andy laughs and shrugs it off, saying, “I got lucky toward the end of the evening and rolled a few strikes. The main thing was the Dothan COT family had a fun experience together where relationships were further developed and strengthened.”
When asked why he became a COT Volunteer over many other ministries or programs he could have invested his time in, Andy stresses the importance of the phrase “ministry with the poor.” Andy says, “Not ministry for, or ministry to, but ministry with. The nature of ministry with others is that it fosters genuine, deep relationships that build trust between people. Once those relationships of trust are formed, the transformation is able to begin in the lives of all involved.” Andy can attest to this transformation. Through COT, he has learned more about the struggles Participants face on a daily basis, especially the lack of a solid support system and the presence of self-defeating patterns of behavior. “As a COT Volunteer, becoming part of a positive, encouraging support system with [Participants] has transformed me. I’m a better, more well-rounded . . . husband, father, and person.”
In his role as a pastor and Dothan citizen, Andy believes COT is the most effective ministry when it comes to living out the teachings and example of Jesus. “Without any transactions taking place between Participants and Volunteers, Participants have paid off debts, saved money for a rainy day, and achieved other goals they’ve set out for themselves.” Like most Volunteers, Andy struggles to share just how much COT has impacted him and those around him. And like most Volunteers, Andy encourages others to join a Community: “COT is one of those experiences that is so difficult to express fully in words. The only way to experience the full effect is to get involved for yourself. If there’s a COT Community near you, I encourage you to get involved.” 

Joan and Jane, Presbyterians in partnership with COT

COT Phenix City Volunteers Joan Gatewood (left) and Jane Simmons stand together in front of their church home, First Presbyterian. Both women are wonderful examples of the warm, welcoming hospitality of this interdenominational ministry. 

One of the great desires of every COT Community is to be an interdenominational effort, a ministry that brings people from all religious backgrounds together for one common goal – changing the lives of those living in their community. For COT Phenix City VISTA Ruth Ann Powers, this desire was met on June 14, 2015. Shortly after Ruth Ann completed her VISTA training and returned home to Phenix City, Joan Gatewood of First Presbyterian invited Ruth Ann to come speak at a luncheon after worship.
A little over a week later, the Phenix City Kick Off was held in celebration of the birth of their Community. From that point on, Joan came to every weekly meeting. But she didn’t keep COT to herself. She brought her friend and fellow First Presbyterian member Jane Simmons. As COT Phenix City found their footing, Joan and Jane were always there, active members in the growth of their Community. Both women were willing to serve in whatever role needed, be it to serve food or clean up after meals. Joan and Jane were also eager to begin the training portion of COT. According to Ruth Ann, “As our Leadership Team recruited Volunteers for COT, Joan and Jane were among the first to sign up. When we needed a hand getting ready for the meeting, they were there early and helped out.” The women are well-liked not just by Ruth Ann and other Volunteers, but also by the Participants. When it came time to match Participants with Volunteers for the small circles of support, both women were popular choices among Participants because of the love and support they show everyone with whom they come into contact.
Joan and Jane exemplify hospitality in action. Their warm smiles and gentle hearts engage all who enter, no matter the denomination, age, race, or background. “They are so lovely and unassuming. I think some of the women that served Jesus must have been like this pair,” says COT Coordinator Laurel Blackwell. Every step of the way, both women have been spreading the news about COT to those around. They have even brought their pastor and his family to various meetings and special events.
Ruth Ann is thankful for these women and all the Volunteers involved in COT Phenix City: “How would all the needs of any Community get met without dedicated, caring, and dependable Volunteers?” 


COT is a ministry that thrives due to the dedication and heart of our Volunteers. With so many wonderful Volunteers, we have many more stories to share. Keep a lookout for the upcoming May newsletter for more stories of Volunteers and the intentional friendships they are forming in their Communities. 


April Events

All times Central unless otherwise stated. Please check the website calendar for locations.


April 19th, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting
April 26th, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting


April 19th, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting
April 26th, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting


April 18th, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting
April 25th, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting


April 14th, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting
April 21st, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting
April 28th, 5:30-8 PM: Taste and See

Phenix City

April 19th, 5:30-8 PM (Eastern): Meeting
April 26th, 5:30-8 PM (Eastern): Meeting


April 18th, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting
April 25th, 5:30-8 PM: Meeting


Want more?

Contact us

Heather Allen
Communications VISTA
Email Us

Community Contacts

Deborah Marriott

Caroline Pinckard

Suzann Tibbs

Katy Wrona

Phenix City:
Ruth Ann Powers

Laurel Blackwell
Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.