Shyla Grace, left, and Jenai Bryant pick up trash from a sidewalk on North First Street on Sunday. Grace and Bryant, both Seattle residents, are members of that city’s branch of the World Mission Society Church of God, and were two of more than 80 church members from across the state who helped in a cleanup effort of the street. (Alec Regimbal, Yakima Herald-Republic)

Equipped with trash grabbers and garbage bags, a group of more than 80 volunteers from various state branches of the World Mission Society Church of God spent Sunday afternoon cleaning a roughly 11/2 mile stretch North First Street between East R Street and East Yakima Avenue.

The church, founded in South 
Korea in 1964, says it has more than 
2 million members in branches across 
175 countries.

Yakima’s branch, which consists of about 35 members, organized Sunday’s cleanup. Members from branches in Spokane, Puyallup, Mukilteo, Redmond, Bremerton and Seattle drove to Yakima on Sunday to help.

One such volunteer, Merill Sewer, a Seattle resident, said he didn’t participate in environmental cleanups until he joined the church. Now he says he loves it.

“This is my life,” he said. “Why would I want to miss out on trying to beautify the world?”

A church leader in the Yakima branch, Amanda Tello said the local branch tries to conduct one large-scale community service project each year. She said Sunday’s cleanup was the biggest such project the local branch has ever done.

“Our church is really well-known for our volunteer services and our good deeds that we share with our communities,” she said. “This is something that we really pride ourselves on — our ministry is not just preaching, our ministry is action for our communities.”

Tello said the cleanup may also help offset any damage done to the local church’s image following a string of articles published in college newspapers around the nation earlier this year that claimed members were aggressively trying to recruit students on campuses. More broadly, critics and former members have labeled the church a cult that recruits and exploits vulnerable people. The church has disputed the claims.

“Those rumors have even spread to here,” she said. “We want to show Yakima that we’re here and that those rumors are false.”

On Sunday, the volunteers employed a divide-and-conquer strategy to clean the portion of North First Street, a location Tello said the city suggested. Volunteers in groups of two or three led the way and picked up larger pieces of garbage with their trash grabbers while others followed and picked up smaller pieces the first groups may have missed. Some made a competition out of it, racing between pieces of trash to see who could collect the most.

The volunteers wore gloves and bright yellow vests with the name of the church printed across the back in black lettering. Some conversed with one another in Spanish and Korean. The cleanup took about an hour and a half.