At a recent meeting of City Ministry Network, Tom Ciccarelli reflected on working with his dad, who's in his 90s, tearing out the old almond trees on his father's ranch and discussing which varieties to plant next. "I realized as I was talking with him that he won't be around to see those trees produce," Ciccarelli told the group. "That's like what we're doing here -- we're trying to plant seeds that will change and bear fruit in our community long after we're gone."
That image of planting for the future symbolizes his work as the first chief executive officer of the Christian ministry group, Ciccarelli said. The former head of United Way of Stanislaus County and Inter-faith Ministries began his role at CMN on June 1, 2009.
The ministry, which began in 2005, works with faith-based nonprofit groups such as Habitat for Humanity, Child Evangelism Fellowship and Youth for Christ and offers such services as financial and prayer support, networking and help forming boards.
The all-volunteer CMN board chose Ciccarelli, who also has a background in business, to take the ministry to a new level and help it grow. "It's been an interesting year," Ciccarelli said. "Once you shift from all-volunteer to having a CEO, things change. Roles change. It's kind of an exciting time, really."
The once-a-month meetings have been good, he said. "You can see how effective that's been for some organizations looking for that partnership and synergy, praying together, hearing quality speakers. The mayor was in and spoke. Chief (Mike) Harden came in and talked about the issues that face the Modesto Police Department. That's been a highlight.
"The other thing that we have been working on is we have a city transformation committee," Ciccarelli said. "Modesto is such a great city. But somewhere along the line, the meth and gangs have stolen the city from us. We feel we must work at taking our city back.
"John Evans, who has a passion for this work, approached me. We hired a consultant who's been involved in city transformation for 20 years plus. He's been walking us through that process for many months, and that's culminating in a committee that will be the catalyst group."
The first job, he said, will be to take a survey of Modesto's Christian community. "We really need to get a snapshot of what Christians think are priorities, what they think are deficiencies, what they think is the God-given mandate of what they should be doing to help the less fortunate."
One of the issues locally, he said, is the large number of people addicted to alcohol or drugs.
"I personally don't think we can address the issues of the city without tackling recovery," Ciccarelli said. Programs like Celebrate Recovery are in several churches, such as the one run by Scott Miller at Big Valley Grace, and is one helpful resource to combat addictions, he said. Offering a similar faith-based program through the county, which has been hit with severe financial cutbacks, might be another way to help the community, he said. Training people in churches "to know how to minister to that population" is another facet.
"That's a key project that we're working on," Ciccarelli said.
CMN also is sponsoring a simulcast of Beth Moore, an internationally known women's Bible teacher, on Sept. 18 at CrossPoint Community Church.
"The cool thing about it is because it's City Ministry Network, it gives it a generic format so all the churches can work together," said Mavis Irwin, wife of Mill Creek Church pastor Bob Irwin and a member of CMN spearheading the event. "So far, we've got nine churches meeting together to plan this."
Besides hosting the event for women across the theological spectrum, she added, "We want to use this event to get the message out to all the women in the body of Christ, coming together to mentor the next generation."
Proceeds from the event will go in part to nonprofit ministries in the area that help women.
In the future, Ciccarelli said, CMN is "exploring the opportunity to provide low-income senior housing in west Modesto. There's a need there, and we're a catalyst, a facilitator."
Asked how this job compares to his previous stints at United Way and Inter-faith Ministries, Ciccarelli, who also serves as a Catholic deacon, said, "This is another calling for me. I don't think you can change a community unless you love it first. Jesus gave a command to love one another. I take that seriously. He also said, 'This is how people will know you are my disciples, that you love one another' and love your community. Mother Teresa said you need to do small things with great love. This gives me the opportunity to live out the biblical nature of my beliefs."
What's his hope for the future in his work with CMN? "I hope I see a Modesto that I grew up in," Ciccarelli said. "I used to ride my bike from Carpenter and Maze and ride down to St. Stanislaus Church to say Mass. I'd ride to St. Stanislaus School. Stopped by the market to have a Twinkie and ride home. Now, you wouldn't let your child ride that circuit. I certainly wouldn't. It's not all bad, but there's a horrible element that's taken over.
"That's my hope for five years, and my prayer, that Modesto again will be a wonderful place to raise your family. Hopefully, we're not 162 out of 162 on national surveys. We definitely have problems. We need to work at changing those.
"This will be my life work, to work to change that. It's how I will live out the Gospel mandate, to work with City Ministry Network. I'm not willing to give up my birthplace to people who only want to do destructive things. We'll see. It's a big, lofty goal, but I'm going to do my best."
On the Net: www.cityministrynetwork.org
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.