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Caring for students, families key for Mass. church planters

An after-school kids club has become an important outreach for Grace Harbor Church, planted in 2018.

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (BP) – Grace Harbor Church in New Bedford has developed a strong connection with children in their neighborhood.

A dozen or so kids kindergarten through fifth-grade students meet after school for the church’s kids club every Tuesday for a time of Bible study, crafts and games.

“We pray for these kids that the whole trajectory of their life would change,” said Natasha Red, a founding member at Grace Harbor and volunteer co-leader of the club.

Natasha Red welcomes people to Grace Harbor Church.

“That is our biggest prayer for these kids is that they would look back on this and say ‘I started going to this thing at this church on Tuesdays and my whole life changed.’

“That they heard the Gospel, but they were also around safe adults that loved them unconditionally.”

A majority of the students are not from Grace Harbor, but come from the elementary school and subsidized housing complex within walking distance of the church.

Grace Harbor’s relationship with the school formed over time, as the church hosted events such as Saturday field days during the summers. After the field days filled with games and fellowship would end, Red was left wanting more. 

“It just felt kind of disjointed,” Red said. “It was like ‘see you next summer, maybe.’ We wanted to continue these relationships with these kids and their families.”

Red said although there are many different after-school programs in the area to choose from, the church wanted to create this Gospel-centered option to continue these relationships. 

Red described one example of a working mom who would watch her son play during the Saturday field days.

Red and others from the church formed a relationship with this mother and she eventually came to Christ. The woman was baptized, and she and her son now attend Grace Harbor.

“It’s missionary work living in our neighborhood and just doing life with these people,” Red said.

“We feel really called as a church to minister to the families of the apartment complex as well as the children and the administration at the elementary that’s right on the same street as us.”

Sowing and reaping

This spiritual fruit comes after a long, hard journey for the core team of Grace Harbor, which left other places to plant the church in 2018.

Natasha Red and her husband Jordan heard about a man named Morgan Proudfoot at their church, The Village Church in Denton, Texas, who was planning to plant a church in the urban community of New Bedford, around 50 miles south of Boston. 

Along with the group from Texas, a small group from Grace Harbor Church in Providence, R.I., also join the team.

Although the Reds did not previously know any other members of the team, the group slowly began to bond.

“We really had to become a family,” Red said.

“It was a beautiful and hard, but super rewarding experience. We’re all moving away from our actual families … so we’re all we have now. We have to be that family for each other in New Bedford.”

Red said their new neighborhood starkly contrasted with the constantly developing Texas community they were familiar with. The community feels old. The narrow roads are not made for vehicles in 2023.  

Houses are small and stacked seemingly on top of each other as part of larger units. Getting a house with both a yard and a driveway is considered “an absolute miracle.”

Red said the most glaring thing of all is the lack of Gospel-preaching churches in the community which is considered mostly unreached.

Despite the drastic differences from what they were used to, Red said “it has been a lot better spiritually for us, so it has been a positive change for our family.”

Once the original Grace Harbor team arrived in New Bedford, there were no real plans for where to meet.

That was until the pastor of an older church in the community reached out to Proudfoot. The church’s congregation had become primarily elderly members, and the building needed so much maintenance it was almost uninhabitable.

Proudfoot simply thought the pastor was going to let them use the building to meet, but he ended up signing over the deed to them.

Red called this “a huge provision from the Lord.”

It took a year of renovations through 2019, with the help of some church mission teams, to help the building become usable again.

After plans to open on Easter in 2020 were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Grace Harbor finally began meeting in mid-2020 with about 17 people. The congregation has grown to roughly 45 attendees. 

Church leaders have taken advantage of their proximity to a subsidized housing complex and the school.

Members began engaging faculty in conversation and serving the school by providing lunches. The relationship grew to be so positive that the school would advertise the church’s events like block parties and Saturday field days.

When Grace began hosting the kids club in January, a group of kids soon began to walk over on Tuesdays after school.

In a struggling community marked with poverty and mental health struggles, Red believes the club is “beyond meeting a need.”

She encourages other churches to find ways to connect with their local school simply by serving.

“Schools are always in need, no matter where they are and teachers are always overworked,” Red said.

“Pray for God to open the door. It’s not like we had a strategic plan, we’ve just always been open-handed.

“Any way that you as a church can go in and just seek to serve. Whatever the need is, go and just try as best you can to meet that.”