Once a month, a group of dedicated professionals ventures into their community to serve those less fortunate than themselves. They're not carrying hammers and nails to build a house, or ladles and pots to work in a soup kitchen. Rather, they're armed with blow dryers, scissors, and nail polish. Oh yes, and love.
The volunteers of HIMHairdressers in the Marketplace, a ministry at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicagohost monthly "day of beauty" sessions where women in need receive free pampering, from haircuts to manicures, but also hear about God's love for them. HIM also goes to nursing homes for the poor, homeless shelters, and facilities for the mentally handicapped to provide free haircuts.
Hairstylist Teresa Russo-Cox founded the ministry in 1998 after trying numerous volunteer positions at Willow Creek, where she attended. None felt like the right fit for her skills and passions. For a while, she wrestled with God. "Why did you give me a talent that's so much about vanity?" she prayed. "How can I serve you?"
She says God answered those prayers with a vision for a group that not only communicates God's love and care to women in need but also reaches out to stylists themselves. "That's what sets us apart from other ministries that offer haircuts to the poor," explains Teresa. "We focus on evangelism to the beauty industry, which is filled with so much darkness. Its underlying message is all about external thingsglamour and glitz. I want to bring the light of God's Word into our industry."
Day of Beauty events are hosted by various local salons on Sundays when they'd normally be closed. Social service organizations that help women, such as support groups for those struggling with addictions, unwanted pregnancy, or domestic abuse, provide the clients. In addition to the beauty services, HIM also sets up a boutique of used clothing and accessories, donated by volunteers and their friends, family, or neighbors, and provides a "goodie bag" to each participant.
"We start the day with a welcome and prayer, and close with prayer as well," says HIM volunteer Susan Fignar. Teresa or another leader gently shares with participants the reason for this ministry: They want to show God's love. But rather than a formal presentation, the gospel's presented through the informal exchanges between stylists and clients. The session concludes with an opportunity for clients to talk about what the day meant to them.
"I told Teresa I wasn't sure I wanted to do hair on my day off," says Melissa Carroll-Chmura, who joined the ministry five years ago and now coordinates the events with another volunteer, Susan Johnsey. "But it's not just about the haircuts, or helping the poor. It's the total experience of the day, sharing God's unconditional love, bringing them joy. That's worth taking a day off for."
At a recent event, the clients were teen girls going through drug and alcohol rehab. Melissa says she was surprised by the girls' reactions: "They told me they hadn't had 'sober fun' beforethey'd never experienced that."
The agencies that provide the clients aren't necessarily Christian agencies, and have sometimes balked at having the volunteers talk about God. "I just tell them, I can't not talk about God," Teresa says. "It's why we do this. I tell them, 'you will hear me talk about Jesus, you will hear me pray.' But I don't do it in a pushy way. I simply tell them what Jesus has done in my life, and that he loves them."
"It gives the women more than a haircut, although a haircut means a lot," says Beth Gardham, director of community resources for WINGS (Women in Need Growing Stronger), an agency that helps suburban homeless women and children as well as victims of domestic abuse. "A lot of our women have to cut their own hair or have a friend cut it. A haircut and style allows them to feel like they used to be, or how they would like to be," she says. (Learn more at www.wingsprogram.com.)
"I had no self-esteem," says Doreen, who was invited to a Day of Beauty after she and her two preschool children left her alcoholic, abusive husband. "That day gave me a boost on the outside but it helped me on the inside, too. They made me feel beautiful, special, and deserving."
Beth says her agency uses the event as a perk for "women who are working the program" at WINGSthat means taking steps with the agency's help to become self-supporting.
She says the women are excited about the day, but some have a bit of trepidation. "Some folks don't want to talk about their situation," she explains. "So we get mixed reactions to the sharing part at the end. But often, we'll hear women ask, 'When are they coming back?'"
Everyone benefits, she adds. "It's good for the women in our program. It's also good for the professionals who volunteer. They're giving back to their community, but also, they're reminded that the women in our program are just like anyone else."
Today, more than 50 stylists (both women and men) in the Chicago area are active in HIM. In addition to Day of Beauty events, HIM volunteers meet for Bible-study small groups and host professional education seminars. With the emphasis on inviting friends to these seminars, stylists may be Muslim, Jewish, or of no particular religious background. They come to learn the latest hair-color technique or just to volunteer, but come away having heard about Jesus' love. Two such stylists, for instance, started out far from God but because of their involvement with HIM recently became Christians and were baptized.
"I've seen great things happen in our small groups," Teresa says. "I have a little flock of five Christians who've been together quite a while. They came in as scared little sheep, but they've really grown into women of faith."
Some of that growth came when ten stylists took a trip to Costa Rica back in 2003, where the church had sent other short-term mission teams. They put on an event at the Rahab Foundation, a mission in San Jose that helps rescue and provide life-training skills for women caught in prostitution, rampant in Costa Rica.
When the women who came to the mission learned Teresa's story and that they would receive free beauty services that day, "Some started crying, others didn't know how to respond, and there were a few who sat with their arms folded, secluding themselves from what was going to take place. But as the day progressed and love filled the room, the women were touched and experienced love in a very unique way," Teresa says.
"We became the eyes, ears, mouth, and hands of Jesus," she adds. "The women from the center kept hugging us; we weren't sure who got served more." (Read more at www.willow creek.org/hairdressers.asp.)
Teresa, Melissa and other volunteers say that every time they serve, they receive. "The biggest reward is not what the clients leave with, although it's a blessing to bring a light into their day," Melissa says. "It's that the volunteers leave with a feeling of satisfaction that comes from giving."
Keri Wyatt Kent is a speaker, author, and freelance writer from Illinois. Visit her site: www.keriwyattkent.com.
HOW TO DO IT AT YOUR CHURCH
6 tips for a successful hairstylist ministry.
1. Begin by praying for every aspect of the ministry.
2. Before offering services, assemble a team of hairdressers. Communicate your purpose and vision through both teaching and small groups. Get someone with administrative gifts to help coordinate. Volunteer stylists don't have to be Christians; in fact, it can be an outreach to them.
3. Work together with an outside agency that screens clients and handles logistics. Otherwise, you may get people who are simply trying to take advantage of free haircuts.
4. Provide the services in a salon, where most of the equipment is already in place, rather than at your church. Or, go to a nursing home that has an in-house salon.
5. Be extremely sensitive. While some women enjoy the gentle massage that goes with a manicure, pedicure, or shampoo, those who've experienced abuse may associate any touch with pain. "If you're a victim of abuse, being touched, even gently, can be very scary," points out Beth Gardham, director of community resources for an agency that helps homeless and abused women.
6. Learn as much as you can about those you serve. Get to know them as people. Through love and respect, provide dignity.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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November/December 2006, Vol. 28,No. 6, Page 54