WakeUp Beaverton puts ministry into back-to-school action


Rev. Jefferson Chao is exhausted – but the kind of exhausted that comes from pouring your heart into your community.
He spent the last two weeks working with volunteers to distribute 5,000 backpacks to kids attending more than 50 different schools in Beaverton, Oregon, and he’s helped with the distribution of more than 50,000 pounds of food, COVID-19 vaccine clinics and more. That doesn’t count the months of work that went into making it all happen, either.
“The community is my church,” said Chao.
He is serving as a new-start church planter with the Greater Northwest Area’s Innovation Vitality Team and does his work through the non-profit WakeUp Beaverton.
In just four years, WakeUp Beaverton has grown from a program of 200 backpacks filled with school supplies donated by Beaverton First UMC and the city of Beaverton to a full-blown partnership with Beaverton School District. WakeUp Beaverton works with donors to provide back-to-school supplies in the backpack and works with the school district to identify the income-qualified students and families.
Beaverton School District is made up of 39,000 students, half of them being students of color. Approximately 13 percent of the student population are English Language Learners and Beaverton is home to many immigrant and migrant families. Approximately 33 percent of the student population comes from families who qualify for free and reduced lunch.
This year, Chao worked with the school district to set up four different distribution events across the district. In addition to backpacks, the Oregon Food Bank provided 32 pallets of multi-cultural food boxes to distribute to families. They averaged 1,500 people served through the food boxes at each event.
Representatives from the Oregon Health Authority were on hand to provide COVID-19 vaccines for infants through adults. Tualatin Hills Parks & Recreation was there to offer vouchers for kids to participate in recreation programs and Community Action was on hand to assist families with rent and housing.
Several churches, including United Methodists, Presbyterians and non-denominational folks, participated either as donors or volunteers helping to hand out backpacks and food.
“I know the community well and I know we can be a community together,” Chao said.
Columbia District Superintendent, Rev. Tim Overton-Harris, volunteered at one of the back-to-school fairs handing out food boxes. He applauds Chao’s commitment to doing church in a new way – a way that a lot of churches should think about in this post-pandemic world. Churches have to partner with their neighbors.
“They’re going to need to identify the needs of their neighbors in practical, thoughtful and respectful ways,” Overton-Harris said. “As The United Methodist Church has said, ‘the church is not a building,’ WakeUp Beaverton is showing you can do thoughtful ministry without a physical location.”
When Chao – whose first career was in business as a property owner and property manager – first came to Beaverton four years ago, he walked around the neighborhood of his church where he was serving. He spoke with people of color, immigrants and others. He asked what was needed. Then he started talking to community partners to ask for assistance.
“It just organically became something,” Chao said of WakeUp Beaverton. “I’m just a person that knows how to network and knows where to go. And when you do this work you have to not worry about failure.”
Chao said he’s received plenty of “no’s” from people, but he keeps moving onto the next person who shares this vision.
Chao said this isn’t about proselytizing, either. Passing joy to others – through a backpack full of supplies or a much-needed box of food – is glorifying God in a humble way.
“I felt like God was telling me to share that love within me and it will bring joy to their hearts,” Chao said.
Overton-Harris said he’s supportive of this “scary” kind of ministry.
“Pastor Chao is willing to have a vision which is broader than the traditional image of church and it’s exciting and challenging and a bit scary really. It means all of us are going to have to redefine what it means to be a community of faith in the world today,” Overton-Harris said. “It’s not just putting dollars in an offering plate. It’s being in a place on a hot sunny afternoon engaging with people you will never know.”
It means a good kind of exhaustion.
“I live in that joy,” Chao said.