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Stewardship and the Young Adult Volunteer

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Deborah Rexrode is curating a blog series called “A New Perspective on Stewardship.” We’ll hear from some stewardship experts across the country on a wide range of what stewardship means for them. What are ways stewardship can be a spiritual practice? How might we come to a new understanding of the role of stewardship in ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah Dianne Jones

Stewardship is a topic I feel I’ve always been familiar with. As a child, I looked forward to the children’s sermons featuring the Stew Bear books that the denomination put out to explain stewardship to children, and I remember saving all of the change I found in various places to put in the special banks we had to bring to church. As I grew older, my perception of stewardship changed as I began to understand tithing, capital campaigns, planned giving, and the ins and outs of church world.

photo by Blake Collins

The thing that never changed was that stewardship was always about money. We talked about giving money, what the money should go toward, or how much money you should give. It was a lot of talk about money for an older elementary aged kid to fully grasp—I didn’t have much money. What could the church do with my money? I wanted to make a difference, but I didn’t know how much difference I could make.

As a youth going to youth conferences, stewardship began to show up differently. Stewardship was being defined as the gifts you offer to your church and the community. For once, it wasn’t all about money! What gifts did I have to offer to the church? How could I best be of service? That reframing of how I thought about stewardship helped me to be able to more strongly connect with what we were talking about during stewardship season.

There came a point, however, that I slipped back into thinking about stewardship in terms of money. Maybe it was when I started working in churches that were desperately feeling the pressure to increase giving or face budget cuts, or felt that they were constantly asking for money to fix a roof, or hire a new position, or update the website. I can’t pinpoint it, but in the last few years, money has been the name of the game.

At least that was true until I began my year with the Young Adult Volunteer program. As a part of the YAV program, the YAV is required to fundraise a minimum of $3,000. This helps to fund the local site where you will be serving, and offers the added benefit of illustrating for the YAV the wideness of their own community. Donors were offered the options of making a one time gift or pledging monthly, and the YAV was informed of each donor so that they were aware of the people who cared enough to give a monetary gift toward their year of service. YAVs would not be able to serve in the program without these generous gifts.

YAVs are expected to commit to “simple living,” or living with intentionality around how they spend the very limited stipend they are given. This season of life in which I’m engaging in simple living has brought me back to my past understanding of stewardship. As a YAV, I’m not able to give as much as I might like to the congregations or organizations that I feel so connected to and supported by. Stewardship has meant living into my role as a YAV in the most authentic way possible, giving whatever gifts I can in order to do good for the wider community in which I am living. This has meant offering myself as a resource whenever possible, showing up for the pieces of mission work that aren’t the fun parts, and trying out things that seem incredibly difficult, not because I’m so great, but because my church and my community deserve the best that I can offer in gratitude for the incredible generosity and support I have been shown.


Sarah-Dianne Jones is a Birmingham, Alabama native who graduated from Maryville College in 2016. She is currently serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC, where she works with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Instilling a Love for the Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarang Kang and Lynn Turnage are curating a blog series on faith formation. We’ll hear from various people who are involved in faith formation personally, professionally, and perseveringly. How has your faith been formed? How has your faith formed you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah Dianne Jones

My earliest memory is of being four years old in Sunday school. It was there that I not only learned about Noah and the ark, Moses and the burning bush, and the Easter story, but also the importance of sharing my animal crackers with my friends, the need to say please when asking for the out-of-reach toy, and how much fun it was to be at church. Growing up, the church supported and loved me in ways that I’m just now realizing instilled my love for the church.

It was at church that there was a community that cared – deeply cared – about the ways I was growing and learning. The congregation wanted to know about the latest book I was reading, read the “newspapers” that my friends and I made in Sunday School about the things that we were learning about, came to my school events, and taught me what it was to be fully surrounded and loved by a community in the name of Jesus Christ.

This community raised me up in the faith, and I went to college assured of my place in the church. I had given the church my whole self, and in exchange my whole self had been shaped by the church. College was my chance to figure out what kind of relationship church and I would have, and I jumped in feet first, full of excitement. In college, I engaged with multiple congregations, each of which offered different experiences that helped to expand and deepen my faith. It was in the moments of great joy that I could celebrate in community, and in the moments of pain I learned to lean on the faith of others to hold me up when my faith felt weak.

As college came to a close, I needed to find what was next. The natural next step was to participate in the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, as it was a mission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that would offer intentional growth opportunities that I had yet to experience. What better way to spend more time thinking about vocational discernment and figuring out what my next steps were? I was thrilled to be matched with the Washington, D.C. site, but almost immediately after accepting the placement, my brain filled with questions.

Was my faith strong enough to do this? What about my experience? Will 22 years of living in the suburbs have prepared me at all to live in a city? Have mission trips, Vacation Bible Schools, Montreat conferences, and countless Bible studies prepared me to live into this experience in the way it deserves?

I needn’t have worried. My experiences had not given me a history in working in situations like I do now in DC, but that did not mean that I wasn’t prepared. My faith had been formed and tested by the same community that still loved me. It’s not perfect, but it never will be. The important part is that I have seen the evidence for a strong community to surround you. My YAV year could not have been as meaningful, challenging, and fulfilling had I not been reminded over and over again throughout my faith journey of my place in the community of Jesus Christ.


Sarah-Dianne Jones is a Birmingham, Alabama native who graduated from Maryville College in 2016. She is currently serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC, where she works with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Creating a Permeable Community

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah-Dianne Jones

As the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) with NEXT Church, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on community. One of the core tenets of the YAV program is intentional Christian community. We are placed with 4-8 other young adults and asked to make a covenant with one another, share a budget, and truly become a community. A huge part of my reflection has revolved around this intentional community I live with, but I’ve also been thinking about community within local congregations, NEXT Church, and the National Gathering.

Community is hard. It takes a lot of work to build a strong and supportive one no matter the setting. I have learned that the struggle with building community comes in large part because there’s no one way to make it work. The effort has to come from both sides.

At the National Gathering, people come together to worship, learn, and enjoy one another’s company in a community made up of people from all over the United States. For many, it’s a time to come together with friends that they don’t get to see very often, swap stories about life in ministry, and catch up. It’s a space in the year to take a breath and release some of the stress of everyday routine.

I attended the National Gathering for two years before I came to be NEXT Church’s YAV. It has become one of the highlights of my year, but I remember walking into registration at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago in 2015 and feeling completely overwhelmed. There I was with a group of Presbyterians that I didn’t know very well and I didn’t really know what to do. As the National Gathering went by, I began to meet different people through friends and my comfort level increased. Last year, in Atlanta, I knew people. My community was there. I always had people to sit with at lunch and knew people to ask about going to dinner. For me, going back into a community I was now familiar with, it wasn’t an experience of feeling isolated.

In Kansas City, I approached the National Gathering from a different side. My role was to coordinate volunteers and be present at the information desk, so I did not spend much time in the ballroom. I did, however, hear comments from some folks about feeling isolated.

I don’t think that there’s any worse feeling than being surrounded by a community and feeling isolated from it. It’s an experience that I have had before and would love to never repeat. I have found myself thinking about the work that the community must put in. How can a community make itself more easily permeable? How can we be an open and welcoming space to those who are entering our communities for the first time? What do we need to change about the way that we encounter others so that they feel that they are seen?

These are questions that don’t apply solely to the National Gathering. I think that congregations, youth groups, presbyteries, and neighborhoods should be asking them every week! We are called to be in true community with one another, not to be isolated. What does that look like? I think that sometimes the answers are simpler than we might think. It might be that a door opens when you sit at a different table or in a different pew every week. It might be that you take on the practice of noticing those who seem to be spending a lot of time alone and making a point of speaking to them. In my community with the other YAVs, we make a point of truly showing up for one another, even when we’d rather stay to ourselves. A question was now ask each other during our community meetings is, “What did you risk for the community this week?” It might be that we risked vulnerability when it would be easier to keep our feelings or experiences to ourselves, or it could be that we risked a new experience that is out of our comfort zone. Our new practice reminds each of us that the work that we each do individually to build our community is critical to its strength. These are small steps, but they’re a start.

We are better and stronger when we are in community with one another. Community isn’t an easy thing, but it’s worth the work.


Sarah-Dianne Jones is a Birmingham, Alabama native who graduated from Maryville College in 2016. She is currently serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC, where she works with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. 

2016-2017 Young Adult Volunteer

Today, we’re thrilled to introduce you to our new Young Adult Volunteer: Sarah-Dianne Jones! Sarah-Dianne will be serving with us for one year and just joined our team last week. We’ll let her share some things about herself with you!

sdj-square-smMy name is Sarah-Dianne Jones and I’m thrilled to be a part of the NEXT Church team as the 2016-2017 Young Adult Volunteer! I am a Birmingham, Alabama native and graduated in May with a religion degree from Maryville College, a Presbyterian college outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. I am a cradle Presbyterian, a preacher’s kid, and a self-proclaimed “hardcore Presbyterian.” Following this YAV year, I plan on pursuing a Master of Divinity degree and ordination in the PCUSA. Some of my favorite things include running, The West Wing, Alabama football, and opportunities to live-stream Presbyterian events.

I have been lucky to have many experiences with the larger church, primarily through Montreat planning teams and conferences, as well as NEXT Church National Gatherings. My summers are marked by the themes of Montreat Youth Conferences and the Montreat Middle School Conference, as well as how many miles travelled with various youth groups to mission trips, conferences, and retreats. Feeling the love and excitement that those youth have for their churches and communities continues to inspire me to be a part of the church and to work for a church that is relevant and meaningful.

I am so excited to be working with NEXT Church this year, and especially to be learning about community organizing and what that looks like in the church and in local communities. I’ll also be working with New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, and I’m looking forward to seeing how these two placements with intersect. Please feel free to read my blog about my experiences this year!

Connections and Transitions

by Angela Williams

I write this blog about a week after I have officially stopped working with NEXT Church, a few days after I have left Washington, DC, and am well into a month of transition home with my family in Rock Hill, SC. Already in these few days home, I’ve met up with a friend whom I met at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit, where we served as Young Adult Advisory Delegates together. She is interning this summer at a church in Charlotte, NC, before she heads off to Scotland to serve as a Young Adult Volunteer, where she will be working with Sarah Brown, a pastor who gave an Ignite presentation at the 2016 National Gathering. This is the most life-giving part of working with NEXT Church.

angela-servingYou see, I might not have known the church in Charlotte and my friend’s future supervisor had I not had the opportunity to immerse myself into the connectional network that is NEXT Church. At times, the PC(USA) can feel way too small. Perhaps a negative word traveled too fast and ended up hurting another member of the Body of Christ. Other times, this relational network feels like a fishnet where each of us is a knot, and we are connected to all the other knots through strings and knots. Alone, we may not be able to withstand much, but together we can hold a full haul of fish.

That is the only way that NEXT Church can do its work. We could not have completed a denomination-wide listening campaign with 447 Presbyterians if we had not already had relationships with the leaders who had relationships with the participants. National and regional gatherings are impossible without a whole village of people coming on board, taking on leadership, and doing the work to make it happen. We could not continue to grow this movement with good folks like you hearing the message and sharing it with others.

To the NEXT Church community, I thank each and every one of you for making this a wonderful site placement for me this year. I am grateful for each and every one of you and what you bring to the table. It has been an honor and a privilege to connect with you over email, on conference calls, and in person. While I may be leaving the NEXT Church staff and Washington, DC, I take these experiences with you in my heart as I move to Austin, TX, to begin seminary. We may have said goodbye, but the PC(USA) is too connected for it to mean anything more than see you later.


AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams just wrapped up her year with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She looks forward to taking these experiences with her as she journeys on to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary to pursue an M.Div. and Masters in Social Work. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

Another Year, Another City

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Emily Powers

Over the past couple of weeks – really months – I have been thinking about why I decided to do a second year as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV). I’ve been asked if it wasn’t required, then why do it? I have talked with other YAVs who have done or are currently doing a second year, and they understand my struggle. After doing one intense year of intentional community, discernment, and volunteering, I discovered a lot about myself. So I felt that tug. That tug that we often identify as a call to do another year in a drastically different city with different people. I went to New York City to try a different job and maybe find my calling along the way.

Then, three months ago, I got to New York. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t finding my second year harder than my first. Who would have guessed that I would long for the spacious city of Washington, DC, or that I would crave for the relative silence that surrounded our row house? Yet here I am. I am in New York, and it is not what I asked for. It is not the second year I thought would be guaranteed from working in an interesting placement, living with experienced YAVs, and living in a constantly moving city jungle.

yav nycSo I am faced with the very difficult task to step back and evaluate my part in my experience. It may seem like a “no kidding” moment. Of course you have the autonomy to take back your life and experience. When I talk with my parents, they tell me how proud they are that I’m doing this great thing. They tell me to keep going because the experience will be worth it. They tell this to me knowing that my entire life I’ve been stubborn and bull headed and that I’m going to do it my way either way. So I thank them for their support because they are right. I will make it.

I have known for a while now that when I am fed with the Holy Spirit, I am at my happiest. Yet I manage to forget this when life gets hard or stressful or busy. So I have decided to start trying to listen to my parents’ advice to pray about it and keep going (like they have shown me my entire life). I cannot expect that someone is going to sit down with the bible and read it for me, just like I cannot expect someone to do my dishes.

So to not spend my year simply saving myself from myself, I have decided to do what I already know how to do. I know how to pray. I know how to go to church and worship. I know how to sit with a work and learn something new. I know that being present and showing up is 90% of the game. I know that by doing these things I have given myself the tools to be fulfilled.

It will still be hard. It will not be the last time I feel frustrated or want to pack my bags to fly home. It would not be worth it if it were easy.


emily powers

Emily Powers is a second year Young Adult Volunteer. She completed her first year in Washington, DC, and is now in The Big Apple. She plans to continue her life in ministry and eventually find herself at seminary. She is basically a New Yorker, except that she likes the Royals and misses getting across town in under twenty minutes.

Learning Through Discomfort

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Sophia Har

Four o’clock. The teacher must be on her way, I thought. Still, to ease my North-American anxiety towards punctuality, I went to find the woman in charge.

“Mabel, is Shirley coming?” I asked.

“No, she couldn’t make it today,” came the reply. “Maria can help you.”

I never found out who Maria was. When I returned to the patio, girls and boys were already forming a semicircle of chairs in preparation for their weekly Bible lesson. Not wanting to lose their attention, I quickly took my seat. The children returned my gaze, eager and ready to listen. That brief moment was so full of potential I didn’t want to speak. I knew that once I opened my mouth, my accent would betray my act of competence.

That is exactly what happened. The more I tried to engage them, stumbling over words and executing ideas as they came, the more restless the children became. The older ones chatted among themselves while the three-year-olds just looked confused. I literally breathed a sigh of relief when five o’clock finally arrived.

Yet I could hardly keep from laughing. Admittedly, my eyes burned a little, but it was too funny to cry. Within minutes I’d gone from being the silent teacher’s aide to being the unprepared sub. I could imagine kids telling their moms about this random lady from los Estados Unidos who tried to get them to sing, speak English, and act out the Nativity of Jesus. Or kids not recalling anything because it’d been so chaotic.

There were numerous moments during that long hour when I could have lost it. I could’ve given into perfectionism, counting every smirk as a mark of failure. I could’ve pretended to be ignorant, letting the kids run wild as an act of surrender. I could’ve chosen anger, blaming under-communication, the teacher, my basic Spanish skills, the children … I could have, because I have chosen these responses in the past.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about surviving in Colombia as a non-Spanish-speaking foreigner, it’s this: laugh at myself.

Because locals are going to laugh at me whether or not they know me.

Because I’m often early, even when I’m running late.

Because meeting times will change and I’ll only find out if I call to confirm the meeting.

Because people always ask, Where are you from and Where are you really from, due to my accent and appearance.

Because my heart still races when I cross the street.

Because if I keep living as I did in the United States, with the same expectations towards social norms, time commitments, race relations, and traffic laws, I would probably become frustrated, resentful and isolated.

I don’t dismiss the challenges of culture shock or the emotions that come with it. I certainly would appreciate hearing fewer jokes or stereotypes about my ethnicity. But I’ve come to see each experience of dissonance as an opportunity – an opportunity to appreciate difference, to examine assumptions, to laugh.


sophiaSophia​ Har currently serves as a Young Adult Volunteer in Barranquilla, Colombia, where she supports the North Coast Presbytery in its peacebuilding efforts. She accompanies local Presbyterian churches in their ministries in various neighborhoods. Her work includes practicing Spanish, teaching English to children, participating in a Bible study with people of all ages, and visiting a displaced community called El Tamarindo. She also enjoys playing soccer in the park, dancing, and chatting with people without worrying about time. She blogs about her YAV experience at http://sophiahar.wordpress.com.
Prior to serving in Colombia, Sophia lived in Washington, DC, where she worked for Jubilee USA and for Sojourners, two faith-based advocacy organizations. Next year she will return to DC, where she hopes to work in international development and with Spanish-speaking communities.

 

Turning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Katie Styrt

“My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great.” The worship hall in Stony Point’s retreat center looks big until you crowd it with millennials. Dozens of future Young Adult Volunteers were packed in, worshiping with our fellow Presbyterians in a way that didn’t feel very Presbyterian at all. There was no stained glass, no pews cemented to the floor, and no bulletins, just us singing loud enough to shake the rafters. I’d signed up to spend a year in discernment and service, and already I was learning new things. We sang hymns brought back from other countries by past mission workers. My favorite was “Canticle of the Turning,” (hymn 100 in Glory to God) a loud, brash song.

More like a pirate shanty than a traditional hymn, the song retold the Magnificat to an Irish tune. Sung as a crowd at the top of our voices, Mary’s words sounded more like an anarchist manifesto than a virgin’s hope. “From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone.” I sang it and I believed it. Soon our group would be spread throughout the world, completely devoted to fighting injustice with groups in their communities. I had spent years praying for change, without the focus to actually do something. Now I would finally get my chance.

A year went by quickly. Unsurprisingly, I was changed more than the place I served. Also unsurprisingly, I went on to seminary (if you want to feel excited about the future of the church, go be a YAV). Now I’m at my first call, a church in a stately behemoth of a building. And here, we sing the “Canticle of the Turning” every Sunday of Advent.

Our first week was an experience. Here was a song I’ve only heard on guitar and djembe, now ready to be performed on our sanctuary organ. I looked at the brick walls around us and tried to imagine this place in post-Kingdom revolution. I was surrounded by retirees and their grandkids in satin dresses. Our choir was robed up and immaculate. And then, we stood up sang about turning the world upside down.

It was perfect.

Week after week in Advent, our souls cried out. Every member of our congregation proclaimed that the world is about to turn. And we they took those words with us, out into our imperfect, stuck-in-the-mud lives.

I love singing “Canticle of the Turning,” because it reminds us how truly revolutionary Mary’s hopes for the Christ child still are today. Those big dreams and revolutionary songs fit in our solid church buildings just as much as in drum circles ; if anything, our established churches need them more. Song by song, we proclaim our allegiance to changing the world, whether it’s comfortable or not. We celebrate the dream of God’s kingdom, and admit that we aren’t there yet. The tension between our lives and God’s call resonates through us, shaking us forward to new things.

As we seek what’s next for the church we lift up these texts that demand revolution. We hold them close and cry out with joy, even when the gap between the gospel and our reality seems too far to overcome. That distance drives us to keep searching for the Spirit’s influence in our communities. Ready or not, our world turns, and we are preparing ourselves to turn it into the Kingdom of God, song by song.


katie styrt pic

Katie Styrt

Associate Pastor, Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester, New York and

Pastor, Laurelton Presbyterian Church, Rochester, New York

This is My Song

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Becky D’Angelo-Veitch

I stood at the children’s worship table holding the hymnal to share with the boy next to me, ready for the morning’s last hymn. Across the short table, I shot my Play-Doh kneading daughter a look that said, “time to stand up,” and then, finally, just as the intro to the hymn began, I gave my attention to the text we were preparing to sing.

Artist: Nevit Dilmen

Artist: Nevit Dilmen

It was Independence Day weekend. The afternoon before, our family had all been together for our annual Fourth of July party. As my generation has grown into adulthood, we have traveled far further to find life partners than our parents had. Through marriage, our little family of life-long “Buffalonians” has grown to include in-laws from across the world, and so we celebrated the 4th (or “Good-riddance Day,” as my British born husband affectionately calls it) with citizens of England, Canada, Japan and the Ukraine, in addition to our Italian-American clan.

So as we worshipped on that July 5 morning, my head was still partially at our family picnic. The service had started with Hymn 338—O Beautiful for Spacious Skies. A lovely, and, indeed, appropriate choice for such a weekend; but, admittedly, not a personal favorite. Although I had sung our closing hymn, Hymn 340 a handful of times, this morning the words stuck with me in a new way:

This is my Song, O God of all the nations,

a song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is;

here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;

but other hearts in other lands are beating

with hopes and dreams as true as mine.

 

My country’s skies are bluer than the oceans,

and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,

and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

So hear my song, O God of all the nations,

a song of peace for their land and for mine.

 

This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms;

thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.

Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,

and hearts united learn to live as one.

So hear my prayer, O God of all the nations:

myself I give thee; let thy will be done.

Having had the privilege of serving the church as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Mission years back, these words resonated with my experience. I often say that living abroad has made me both more patriotic and more critical. I am proud of the nation that I call home, but seeing our country through the eyes of others provided me with a broader lens to view our nation’s policies, attitudes and practices. This hymn spoke to me that morning of the beauty of diversity. It, more eloquently than I could, expressed that national pride is something that can unite us, and that we can serve God and God’s world best when we acknowledge and celebrate the beauty and value of every nation.


BeckyBecky D’Angelo-Veitch

Coordinator of Children’s Ministry and Congregational Life

Third Presbyterian Church

Rochester, New York

YAVs Connecting with Community (Part II)

By Marranda Major

We began this endeavor with the best of intentions. Through service, we hoped to spend the last few months of our YAV year connecting more deeply with our neighborhood (you can read more about our intention in this previous post). I hoped our experience would yield some good insights for congregations who are similarly interested in engaging more deeply with their neighborhood contexts. However, we’ve encountered many roadblocks before we could even begin. Most of our neighborhood’s community agencies require at least six weeks lead time to set up a volunteer opportunity. Who knew that it would take this much advanced planning to offer up our time? Ironically, we, who are full-time volunteers, didn’t have a clue… Let the learning begin: building relationships – even tangentially to offer time and labor – takes time.

We’ve had one community engagement project so far: on a recent Friday we visited the Neighborhood Farm Initiative’s demonstration plot at the Mamie D. Lee Community Garden. After a quick orientation, we divided into groups. Some of us loaded wheelbarrows with wood-chips while others set off to weed and turn over the paths that run through the garden plots. Together, we helped to tidy the paths around the exhibition garden to make it easier for volunteers and student gardeners to navigate. After completing the more labor-intensive tasks of neatening paths and preparing new beds, we enjoyed planting yard-long beans, basil, and chard. We finished our morning at the gardening by harvesting some red lettuce to take home for our YAV community meal.

Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis

(Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis)

So, what learning and questions from the garden can we transplant to church life?

  1. We used two different techniques for planting seeds: careful measuring and kamikaze scattering. The yard long beans were inserted precisely 4 inches apart in rows that were 10 inches apart, with a clearly defined process of one person laying the row and the next following behind to cover the seeds with dirt. The chard and basil, however, were scattered at random, comingling in each bed with other herbs and vegetables that were already at their peak.

Of these two approaches, the scatter widely method most closely resembles how we went about setting up these community engagement days, and as we’ve been disappointed with the results, I’m curious what would have happened if we had taken a more intentional approach? We cast the net wide and made a lot of phone calls to the community groups that we spotted during our boundary-walk, however, we got very few return phone calls and emails. I wonder if we would have had more success in building relationships if we had first setting up meetings with volunteer coordinators to explain our context as well as our hopes for our community partnership.

Unlike the parable of the sower (Mark 4:10—20), we can attest that our soil samples are neutral; however, we will have left DC by the time our basil, chard, and yard-long beans are ready to harvest, so we will not know which approach yielded more produce.

  1. Weeds are not the insidious trespassers I imagined, but simply plants that are thriving in a space you intended for another plant. NFI’s Volunteer Coordinator, Caroline, led us on a tour of the edible weeds native to DC—from mint to coriander seed to purslane and lemon balm. We were delighted by the bounty of flavor and texture. We learned that other weeds, like hairy vetch, are desirable because they are good crop covers and attract bees and other pollinators to the garden. This makes pulling weeds less the zero-sum challenge I had expected, and more a test of the gardener’s discretion to know the ideal time to pull specific weeds in each particular location.

From my previous YAV experience doing youth work, I know that it’s tempting to view other extra-curricular activities as competition for our youths’ limited time—weeds, thriving while we are focused solely on surviving. But what if we instead considered the holistic benefits our youth receive from participating in many different activities? While hockey builds discipline and teamwork, theater nurtures creativity and confidence—what will our youth groups develop and grow? Are there symbiotic relationships that we can encourage—a post-practice Bible study or habit of the entire group showing up for big games and performances to show support?

  1. You can pile a LOT of woodchips into a wheelbarrow, but once in motion, content spills. And, should you happen across a bump in the road, you may lose more than you keep. Loading the wheelbarrow becomes a game of balance.

In church life, we are too familiar with this balancing game. Our programs and support structures are necessary for keeping up the life of the Church; however, we must tread carefully as not to be so bogged down that we sacrifice our nimbleness, flexibility, or ability to adapt to new challenges else we will not be able to continue.

  1. Clearing the beds for planting requires using pitchforks to break up the roots of the existing ground cover, teasing out the excess weeds, and churning the earth. The weeds are then added to the compost bin so that as they decay, they could continue to give life to the garden as they pass on nutrients to new seedlings.

When programs have fulfilled their purpose and it’s time to end them, what learning will continue to enrich and nourish the life of the church? How can we honor the memory of and continue the meaningful work of groups like a dwindling local chapter of Presbyterian Women or the once vibrant mission effort once the groups themselves become unsustainable?

There is much to learn from gardening: Jesus used the garden as an illustration in many parables to teach early Christians about the kindom of God. Our time in the garden dug up some questions of how we can continue to be Church today, and planted seeds for future volunteers to grow into relationship with this community. Most importantly, gardening let us connect with our Brightwood Park community by helping our neighbors access local, nutritious fruits and vegetables.


Marranda Major

Marranda Major is serving in Washington, D.C. as the Young Adult Volunteer placed with NEXT Church. While Marranda is sad to be leaving NEXT in a few weeks, she is excited to begin studying for her MDiv at Union Theological Seminary in New York City!