The innocent sound of children at play: infectious giggles, shrieks of joy. “Look at me, Mommy!” and “Daddy, watch!”
This is part of what missional grants from the Southern California Baptist Ministries foundation has done for God’s Kingdom work through Catalyst Church in Woodland, a Sacramento suburb.
Tears in the eyes of parents, grateful for backpacks stuffed with school supplies, is another sign of the physical evidence of God’s love in a town where upwards of 80 percent of all elementary school-aged children qualify as low income.
Catalyst Church in Woodland, planted in 2014 by Catalyst Church in Santa Paula, was started and continues to be pastored by Matt Van Peursem, a former worship pastor at the mother church.
“We were looking to plant in a medium-sized city where we could make an impact, in a growing community – more young families moving in than out – and some friends suggested Woodland,” Van Peursem said. “The town had not seen a new church in 20 years.”
Matt and Kirsten Van Peursem and their three sons arrived the first weekend in July 2013. They immediately got involved in community activities and began networking. By fall 2014 a fledgling group of about 100 was gathering for worship at Tafoya Elementary School, and the Van Peursems were building relationships with teachers and administration.
He heard at a state convention-sponsored gathering a presentation by the Southern California Baptist Ministries foundation about the possibility of grants for missional initiatives.
“The school was discussing the need for students to be resourced well, and what that does for their self-confidence,” Van Peursem said. “Most of the time supplies come out of teachers’ pockets. Our team got to brainstorming. What if we could help resource the students with supplies?”
With the school’s eager acceptance of any help, Catalyst Woodland submitted a grant proposal in March, and heard in June that it was approved.
“After we received the grant from Southern California Baptist Ministries we realized we could do so much more than just dropping off some supplies,” Van Peursem said. “Once we started dreaming everything came on the table.
Church members gave $4,200 for school supplies, and “We had more than 1,000 people attend our first carnival,” the pastor continued. “We distributed 350 backpacks to students. Our carnival included face painting, sno-cones, popcorn, Woodland Police K9s, Woodland Fire Department, a local DJ, bounce houses, seven custom carnival games and a full prize booth.”
The back-to-school carnival took place the first Sunday in August, 2015. It was a day the Catalyst family did church, rather than attend a church service.
“The stories that came out of that Sunday were incredible,” Van Peursem said. “One of our volunteers who ran security for the ‘supply distribution room’ told us that when children finished filling their backpack and came to the end of the line they would look to her and every time she would see children with an ear-to-ear grin and the parents just weeping.”
Catalyst Church gave the remaining backpacks and supplies to two other schools and to Child Protective Services for local foster children.
“We’ve tried to create a church seen in the eyes of the people of our city as a benefit to our city,” the pastor said. “People would be told from the get-go, don’t come here unless you’re willing to make a difference. It’s not a money ask. We’re asking you to make a difference through your life.”
In the years since, the back-to-school carnival has expanded, with grants from the Southern California Baptist Ministries foundation coupled with ever-growing designated offerings from the congregation, which pre-pandemic had grown to more than 250 in Sunday worship. One school became two, then four, and this year, if not for the Covid-19 pandemic, students from all 12 of Woodland’s elementary schools would have been invited to the local fairgrounds for a huge carnival that was to include 14 custom carnival games.
“There is no question that we have been able to impact our community for the sake of the gospel on a scale we could not have dreamed without the Foundation,” Van Peursem told Pathways. “Their financial and prayer support has enabled many of our dreams to become reality.
“We have tremendous confidence that our carnival will be a bridge to many in our community coming into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” said the pastor of the church where 49 people have been baptized since 2014. “It also could not have happened without the people of the church genuinely wanting to be the people of God, to put hands and feet to the gospel message.”