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I Saw Those Eyes and I Just Knew That I Knew You

ROSMY_CMYK_small2By Jessica Rathbun-Cook

During my last year of seminary I had the opportunity to intern with an organization called ROSMY that serves LGBTQ youth, ages 12-20. Since that time, I’ve continued to volunteer in various capacities, and often think the way in which ROSMY’s staff and volunteers embody the organization’s simple goal of “helping youth be themselves” would serve as a powerful model for the Church. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the transformation that comes as youth are given the tools to explore and articulate who they are, and know that they are honored and respected no matter the baggage they carry or the scars they bear when they come in. Every day the cinder-block building that houses the organization becomes a sacred space where lives are transformed through conversations that offer the youth something that many of them cannot find anywhere else: the opportunity to belong.

I recently attended ROSMY’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, where folks who serve with ROSMY are given free food and a big “Thank You” from the staff. I was sitting at a table enjoying a meal and conversation with a handful of regular group facilitators who help lead conversations at any one of several programs that go on throughout the week. Included at the table was Betsy, a 64-year-old former drama teacher who, I would soon learn, has been volunteering with ROSMY since 2001. At some point a relatively new facilitator, Justin, approached an empty seat at the table and asked if he could join us. As we went around and did our introductions, Betsy’s face lit up with a flash of recognition and excitement. Their words were muddled together as Betsy and Justin embraced in a joyful hug. As it turns out, Justin was one of ROSMY’s youth a decade ago, and Betsy was one of his facilitators.

“Oh gosh, it’s good to see you,” Betsy said. “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.” The moment blew me away. Given the number of youth that come in and out of ROSMY’s doors in any given year, and that Betsy has been there for over a decade, it’s a safe bet that she’s led conversations with hundreds, if not thousands of teenagers during her time as a facilitator. I was humbled by the level of respect she gives the youth, by how very present she must be at every conversation to be able to recognize someone, even after a decade apart.

I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.

In the midst of a world that is largely unkind and a Church that moves between antagonistic, indifferent, and complacently silent, ROSMY offers LGBTQ youth a chance to to be honored, heard and known. ROSMY’s approach is pretty straightforward: create a space for people to articulate who they understand themselves to be, give them the opportunity to safely explore that identity, and celebrate the diversity of personalities that make a community unique. This simple act spurs transformation, enabling youth to empathize with one another, to hold each other accountable, and to honor every person who comes through the door. Time and again, youth come to ROSMY and bloom, empowered through a process of self-discovery to open up to the world around them, building friendships with one another and serving as leaders and mentors for new youth who come in. The community that is built provides a foundation not only for individuals, but also for future leaders. A number of youth, like Justin, come back as facilitators, offering not only support, but also a model of life beyond the current muck many are trudging through, as if to say: “Yes, I have been where you are, and I know it’s tough, that it sometimes feels unbearably painful; but, know that you are not alone.”

What might the Church be like if we used ROSMY’s model as an approach to ministry? What would happen if we focused first and foremost on making a space where all people knew that they were welcomed, honored, and loved – that it was safe to show their scars, to bear one another’s burdens? Would giving each other the space to articulate who we understand ourselves to be give way to empathy, trust, and accountability, and community building? What might the church be like if we look each other in the eyes often enough that, even after a decade apart, we might see one another and be able to say, “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you”?

ROSMY’s website can be found at www.rosmy.org.


Jessica Rathbun-Cook blogs regularly at clatteringbones.com.

Mission Shift in Christian Education

children_youth_1By Jen James

In the conversations about what is next for the Church, I hear a lot of talk about new ways of worship, different methods to engage the community in mission, how to reach young adults, and ways to build new worshipping communities.  What I don’t hear a lot about is how this conversation affects Christian Education.  Some pastors wish their over-zealous educators would take it down a notch and just dissolve their dwindling Church School ministry that seems to be draining energy and resources.  Some churches long for the days when education classes were bursting at the seams – a time when people were “serious” about their faith and were committed to reading the Bible.  For those of us who work in Children, Youth, and Adult Ministries, it can sometimes feel like the Church is on the move and we are grasping for a seat on the train.

The reality is this area of ministry can be the very catalyst for change within a church and its community. Educational ministries are geared to reach the very heartbeat of our communities – its children, youth, and young adults. But, authentic outreach is not going to happen with the best Vacation Bible School in town, or a flashy Sunday night Youth Group complete with a band and a super hip Youth Director, or by purchasing the next great curriculum that guarantees children and youth will love learning about God by bringing the fun back to Sunday School. While these ministry tools aren’t bad, the problem is we tend to think these will attract flocks of people to our diminishing churches. At best, these programs serve those in our churches.  At worst, they are attracting Christians from neighboring churches where the programs aren’t as grand in a twisted sort of membership poaching.  If we are honest, these attractional tools aren’t making authentic and lasting connections with the community.

One place I have witnessed the most authentic community partnership is with local schools. Christian Education is built on a foundation of loving and caring for children, youth, and young adults. Our very DNA is built to be in this kind of partnership. In my current ministry context, the church I serve has embraced that part of our ministry with children and youth is to reach out to local schools. This is not just a once a year partnership like providing food baskets at Christmas. This is an ongoing relationship that takes years to build. It is continuing to support the needs of the schools until the school community recognizes that the church genuinely cares about its students, staff, and families.  It means loving families for the sake of the community and not for the sake of church membership.  There is no better place to reach every child in your community — regardless of race, religion, or socio-economic status — than in a local school.  Perhaps if we allow ourselves to be transformed by those relationships, the transformation of our churches will follow.

Intrigued? Here are some ideas to get you started partnering with a local school:

  • Sign up for the school e-newsletter to read about upcoming events, needs, and volunteer opportunities
  • Have a member of your church join the PTA
  • Tithe your Christian Education budget and set aside that money for the needs of local schools
  • Volunteer at the school either for an ongoing need or for a special event
  • Support school fundraisers (our church buys our mulch each year from the booster mulch sale)
  • Sponsor a Booster Ad in in the Drama Club program or a seasonal sports program
  • Attend sporting events, concerts, and shows as a church
  • Send a note of appreciation from your church on Teacher/Principal Appreciation Week
  • Schedule a time to meet the Principal, just to say hello and let them know the church is there if they ever have a need
  • Advertise for upcoming school events in your church newsletter and bulletin
  • Donate grocery gift cards for school counselors to keep on hand for when families are in crisis
  • Become a sponsor for school programs
  • Get involved in a high school Baccalaureate – if they don’t have one, offer to host and help organize one
  • Volunteer at the All Night Grad Party
  • Offer to purchase yearbooks for those students whose families can’t afford one.

jen_jamesJen James is the Director of Family and Adult Ministries at Bush Hill Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, VA. She just completed her M. Div. at Wesley Theological Seminary.

 

The Most of These

by Kim McNeill

Last week, with the help of dedicated youth advisors, I took a group of middle schoolers from University Presbyterian to Washington, DC for a spring break service trip to learn about homelessness and poverty. They met, befriended, and served those who are currently facing the hard realities of life on the street.

Our youth are as blissful and sheltered as any 12-14 year olds. They are dedicated to church and youth group but know little about what it means to live out their faith in the world. In DC, our youth spent an evening with Andre who is currently homeless and Eric who has struggled with homelessness for much of his life. Our young people were shocked when they heard just how easy it was for Eric and Andre to become homeless. They were appalled to hear what they each go through living on the street. They were saddened to learn how cruel others can be to those who have so little.

As they talked with Eric and Andre, I witnessed their stereotypes of “the least of these” shatter right before my very eyes. By getting to know these two incredible guys, homelessness became less of a problem to be solved by adults. Homelessness became their problem to face head on because it was happening to their new friends. After connecting with Eric and Andre, these sheltered youth served in the city with new eyes. Those in line for meatballs and mashed potatoes weren’t just an issue, they were people, children of God, with gifts and personalities just like those middle school youth. In hearing Eric’s and Andre’s stories, they learned that human connection and seeing the image of God in others is the first step in serving one another and living out their faith. I can’t help but think that our youth need more of this in the NEXT church: more opportunities to truly connect with those in need and more occasions to have their blissful ignorance wiped away with powerful, personal conversations.

Attending to the needs of our youth workers is vital if we want our churches to offer such life-altering and faith forming experiences to our young people. Supporting and enabling youth workers is the one of the best gifts a church can give its youth. Churches must equip youth workers with educational opportunities in scripture, theology, and psychology so they are best able to put new experiences and conversations with “the least of these” in the context of a young person’s developing faith. Our continuing education should help youth workers understand how to stop over-planning and start trusting the Holy Spirit (especially when structure and planning helps us youth workers keep our sanity on many days). Congregations must support Sabbath-keeping for our youth workers. In the midst of irregular schedules and instant access via texting and the internet, youth workers need to experience a holy Sabbath rest to have the energy to encourage and support youth in new and challenging situations. As a church community we must continue to find ways to connect youth workers to one another for companionship and support from those who understand where they are coming from.

As we live into the NEXT church, how will you and your congregation encourage, support and sustain your volunteer and paid youth workers? What supporting role will you play in helping our youth have the powerful experience of being the church in the world?


kimKim McNeill is the Staff Associate for Youth and Congregational Life at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC where she’s served for over five years. Prior to that, Kim worked in Presbyterian Camp and Conference Ministry. This summer she’ll enjoy the gift of her first Sabbatical, something she thinks all those in ministry need to stay spiritually healthy and energized for the work before us.