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Summit County, Colorado, is considered to be one of the least Christian counties in the United States. Not only are most people not Christian, a strong percentage are anti-Christian.
Eric and Leila Ojala (OH-juh-la) have been living in Summit County for the past nine years as missionaries with Missionary Church Planters and Developers through Assemblies of God U.S. Missions, getting to know people in the Breckenridge area, discovering needs, and ministering as they could. Two years ago, they launched Elements Church.
Elements Church has an adult congregation of about 40. At first glance, that may not seem overly impressive, but given the climate of the community towards Christians and an estimate of 4 percent evangelical Christians in the county, 40 is a significant number.
“Many people here hate Christians — are actually anti-Christian,” says Eric Ojala, the church’s executive pastor. “It’s a very difficult place for Christians to live or minister in.”
Leila, Elements Church’s lead pastor, agrees. “The only church in town well-liked is a church with a theology that basically says ‘anything goes’ — nothing is wrong.”
Although evangelical Christianity is shunned at nearly all costs, a local elementary school was permitted to bring in a specialist in new age meditation and the children were taught to sit lotus style and practice meditation.
But recently, the cold Colorado shoulder Elements Church has received up to this point, started to soften.
In a discussion with Convoy of Hope’s Rural Compassion Director and U.S. missionary Steve Donaldson, he recommended to the Ojalas that they clearly demonstrate to the community in a significant way that their church wasn’t there to take, but to give and work with the community for its benefit. He suggested providing shoes for children by partnering with Rural Compassion.
Taking Donaldson’s advice, Eric found out that 400 children attended the nearby Dillon Valley Elementary School. So, he submitted a grant request to Rural Compassion for 400 pairs of shoes — enough to provide each child at the school with a new pair of shoes. The grant proposal was accepted.
Eric then went to the school, explaining that the church would like to give each child a new pair of shoes — no charge and no strings attached. Taking more advice from Donaldson, he also connected with the police departments and fire department to make safety presentations during a possible assembly. School leaders accepted the offer.
For the next two months, Eric could be seen in and around the school as he made multiple trips to literally hand-measure — with some help from a team from the UC Santa Barbara Chi Alpha — each child’s feet, to make sure he or she received the right size.
“I also got to meet every single teacher, the administrators, and the principal — some of them multiple times — as I had to keep coming back to measure kids’ feet,” Eric says, adding that to many of the kids he’s just known as “the shoe guy.”
Along with partnering with Rural Compassion for shoes, the church purchased drawstring backpacks to present the shoes in, as the shoes do not come boxed.
Eric, 38, admits that he and Leila, 37, were nervous about the May 31st event as they had never done anything like this before.
“For years we’ve been doing small events for the school and community, through things like Parents Night Out, giving away school supplies or Christmas gifts to families in need, serving single parents in the community, and volunteering at the school, so we did have a bit of name recognition,” says Leila, “but this was the first time we attempted something like this on this large of a scale.”
Would it be well received? Would the kids like the shoes? What, if anything, would the community think? Would it be a big deal or little more than a fizzle?
The event went off better than they ever imagined! Fourteen church members assisted with the assembly. Kids were happy, parents were happy, and teachers were happy. Even more, relationships have been established with kids, parents, and school staff, and people all over town are still talking about it.
“We had virtually no relationship with the police departments or fire department; we weren’t even sure the fire department was going to show up,” Eric says, “but now we have incredible relationships with them all. The fire department even let us know that anytime we do something like this, they would love to be a part of it!”
The credibility and acceptance the event has brought to the Ojalas and Elements Church has left the couple stunned at how “a little bit of kindness” has impacted their community.
“We were at the pool and some kids recognized me from the assembly and they came running up to me and told me how much they loved the shoes,” Leila says. “And on a Facebook page for Summit moms, I saw no less than 10 posts about the church doing this . . . it has been a massive return on investment.”
Eric, who can now walk into the elementary school and be readily recognized and accepted by students and staff alike, laughs a bit as he reflects: “When you do things like this, like giving out 400 pairs of shoes . . . , well, it’s hard to be mad at people who are serving and loving you.”
However, the road to the spiritual hearts of Summit County is still filled with obstacles. Many of the residents have only the faintest of Bible knowledge — believing that the Bible has “something to do about God and a cross.”
“The people of this area are post-modern spiritual people, and open to the supernatural,” Leila explains. “They really want to see the supernatural — so why not see the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us first? We’ve been seeking that and seeing miracles take place!”
The Ojalas hope to reach out and do similar events at other local schools in the future. They believe that through the power of the Spirit, the sneers the word “Christian” has brought to so many lips of Summit County residents in the past, will be transformed into smiles.
“We may not be allowed to preach the gospel in schools,” Eric observes, “but we can love kids and share the gospel by our actions.”