By Jennifer Colosimo
A story’s most profound message most often comes from the people who lived it. So, in the case of the first Relay of Kindness, hearing it called “a story of collaboration,” transfers the focus of the story from numbers to people, from statistics to hearts and hands.
Those words come from Mark Buhlig, director of the nonprofit organization, Points on the Wheel, co-pastor at Englewood Church in Gladstone, Mo. and Together for Hope practitioner working with communities in Texas since 2010.
Buhlig joined the rural development coalition formed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship after being invited by Jeremy Lewis, Together for Hope manager at the time, to visit some of the hard-to-reach communities along the Rio Grande including Eagle Pass, Texas, in Maverick County. This and other rural communities sparked nostalgia from similar communities of his childhood and he has been passionate about working with such communities ever since.
“The relationship between Points on the Wheel and Together for Hope, as with all the people and organizations with whom Points on the Wheel works, is one of relationship based support and collaboration,” said Buhlig. “In 2001, Together for Hope created a platform for engagement in (originally) 20 counties of persistent poverty. Seven of those original 20 are in Texas. Since my engagement began I have cultivated and maintained relationships with my friends in Eagle Pass. Together, working with pastors, churches, and other organizations, we have addressed a variety of issues—literacy, food insecurity, inadequate housing, disaster relief, and most recently and urgently, immigration.”
He has been able to utilize the relationships built through Points on the Wheel to collaborate with, among others, Together for Hope, connecting community leaders with the methodology Together for Hope promotes: Asset-Based Community Development.
Asset-Based Community Development puts the focus on a community’s strengths rather than its weaknesses. One such asset in Eagle Pass is the nonprofit, Mission: Border Hope. The idea of the Relay of Kindness emerged from conversations between Buhlig and Becky Ballou, the executive director of Mission: Border Hope and pastor of First United Methodist Church, Eagle Pass. The original collaboration between Buhlig and Ballou grew into a relay that included participants from multiple perspectives: Christian, Jewish, interfaith organizations, and those who have no faith perspective. The result was the inaugural Relay of Kindness—an event that has invited a larger conversation on just how much more we can do when we do it together.
On September 18, Relay of Kindness arrived in Eagle Pass with 393 boxes of comfort supplies for asylum seekers crossing the border from Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico.
The relay took six days, starting at Englewood Church in Gladstone, Mo., and making stops in Columbia, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Wappapello and Springfield in Missouri, Norman, Okla., Fort Worth, Waco, Austin and San Antonio in Texas before reaching the border. At each stop local community members, encouraged by a local organizer, participated in the relay. Boxes contained specific supplies for which Mission: Border Hope and its director, Pastor Becky Balou, had expressed a need. Winter coats, diapers and more stocked the shelves at Mission: Border Hope’s resource center for distribution.
“The boxes are only part of the story,” reiterated Buhlig. “As we traveled, caring people provided meals, lodging and transportation. Volunteers helped load and unload boxes from truck to truck. (It was a relay, after all.) Items arrived from as far away as Maine. I am convinced that part of what made the relay compelling was that it created a platform for caring. The immigration crisis burdens many of us, and this was a way to respond physically and spiritually. It was an event owned by none, yet owned by all who participated.”
Buhlig realizes that most people who participated weren’t looking to attach their good deeds to any organization. In fact, he insists Points on the Wheel and Together for Hope aren’t the real heroes. According to him, most who participated were doing so to offer comfort to another person, another family, etc. It was a reminder that doing good doesn’t need a better reason than simply to do good. He added, “Many of us look at the immigration policies and say, ‘We are better than this.’ The relay gave us an opportunity to demonstrate the ‘better’ of which we are capable.”
The Relay of Kindness is but one good story of the kind of work that Together for Hope is a part of. “Collaboration is deep in the culture of Together for Hope. In these days of limited financial resources, collaboration has the capacity, if we will embrace it, to more than supply our needs. “Today, Together for Hope is in a time of transition, which includes expanding into a coalition trying to address persistent poverty in over 300 counties, parishes and boroughs in the United States,” said Buhlig, “but the transition into 300-plus areas, being able to connect with those communities, ask the right questions and actually provide them with advocacy and resource is not easy. The relationships must come first and then collaboration will be the key to making a bigger impact. It’s the key to doing more good, together”
Note: “It is important to recognize the work that others have done and are doing through CBF and Together for Hope along the border,” said Buhlig, nodding to CBF’s Field Coordinator for Texas, Rick McClatchy, Associate Coordinator of Missions and Hispanic Ministries in Texas, Jorge Zapata, and Field Coordinator for Fellowship Southwest, Marv Knox, to name a few.