Youth outreach ministries nurture young lives

By John W. Coleman

Perhaps two of the most fundamental experiences necessary for a healthy childhood are self-discovery and self-expression. If those self-experiences are grounded in Christian faith and discipleship and elevated by self-less compassion, then the odds of children becoming healthy, whole persons are very good.

Congregations across the Eastern PA Conference are using that formula in various ways in search of that healthy outcome for their own youth and others in their communities. Beyond tutoring and homework help, they are using mission trips, the arts, sports and recreation, candid conversations and even the therapeutic influence of animals to encourage self-discovery and self-expression among young people.

We feature glimpses of some promising and proven youth outreach ministries in this issue of NEWSpirit. But we would like to feature more in future issues if our readers and churches would share with us their effective examples of how to reach, disciple and transform youth for Christ. In the meantime, we encourage you to contact leaders involved in these ministries to learn more about them.

Yardley UMC (East District): MyCalling! 

“Mission work is something that has quickly become a huge part of my life,” said Faith Macwana of Morrisville UMC. “While making awesome friends and creating tons of memories, we are also able to give back to the community. I couldn’t imagine a better feeling.”

About 20 young teens from Morrisville UMC joined Yardley UMC’s new Winter version of its annual MyCalling! Middle School Mission (formerly YU?MC) for middle-school-age youth, usually held mid-summer. Nearly 50 youth in all, plus adult coordinators—from Eastern PA, New Jersey and New York—descended on historic St. James UMC in Philadelphia Feb. 16-18 to help the church in its extensive, ongoing makeover.

Sleeping on bunk beds and sleeping bags, they lodged in the church’s former parsonage, now its new Mission House, which itself was renovated by previous volunteers, mostly from Discovery Service Projects, based in Pipersville.

Yardley’s high school youth planned and supervised the mission experience for their younger peers. Together with St. James’ members, they cleaned, painted, did repairs and began work on the church’s future music recording studio. But they also enjoyed worship, fellowship, a movie, games and Philly favorites like cheese steaks and Tastykakes®. 

“It’s a real blessing because there are few mission trip opportunities like this for young teens,” said MyCalling! coordinator Kelly Rymer. The program recently received a grant from the UMC’s 2018 Global Youth Service Fund.

“Some people think mission trips are just hard, boring work,” said Rob Hawk, also of Morrisville UMC. “But it’s a chance to have a good time with your peers and people around you, while also reflecting on your life through God.” 

“I am glad that the work we have done will help the community in and around the church” added Josh Schettino of Yardley UMC. “I can’t wait to come back next year.” 

For any church wanting its middle-schoolers to experience the summer version of this mission adventure, July 8-12, registration is open now. Contact MyCalling! at yumcmissions@gmail.com. Visit their website (mycallingministries.com) to learn more. And visit their Facebook page (facebook.com/mycallingmission) to see more photos.

First UMC Lancaster (West District): Upward Basketball 

Bearcats, Wolverines, Hurricanes, Cyclones, Thundering Herd… The names are fearsome, but the K-4th-grade boys and girls who play on these Upward Basketball League teams sponsored by First UMC Lancaster are anything but. In fact, they are taught to be Christ-like in competition—demonstrating teamwork, integrity and respect—and they are as much rewarded for sportsmanship as for skill.

Upward Basketball is the most popular sport in Upward Sports, purportedly the world’s largest Christian youth sports provider. Their mission is to promote the discovery of Jesus through sports. First UMC has operated a league for about 12 years. In fact, the church built its present upstairs basketball court with this community outreach ministry in mind.

Laura Sambrick, the church’s Minister to Families and Children, coordinates the burgeoning league, which this year numbers 352 children from Lancaster city and county, in 40 teams led by 88 volunteer parent-coaches. Only about a dozen of the players belong to First UMC, she said.

Game-day volunteers are essential, as is the church’s partnership with nearby Highland Presbyterian Church to host so many teams for five days of weekly practices and eight weekends of games, plus three weeks of pre-season practice.

“You are giving much more than just your time and energy,” Sambrick tells volunteers, whom she relies on to handle the Snack Shack, scoreboard, hospitality, cheerleading and other tasks.  “Together we are preparing athletes to succeed in the game and in life.”

At halftime Sambrick takes the floor, surrounded by families, to offer five minutes of devotions before play resumes. And opposing teams form a circle to pray together before each game and a line to salute each other afterward.

The sports league is family-friendly in cost—only $70 per child, with need-based scholarships available—and in time, with weekly practices lasting only an hour.

“We’re maxed out and would need to add another church to grow any bigger,” said Sambrick, who often wishes Sunday school and church attendance would grow as fast and with such popularity. “This is the biggest ministry we have.”

Indeed, the children do learn Bible verses and life lessons at each practice. And parents interviewed during a game in January said they liked the low-key, non-aggressive play, where their young children can have fun, learn skills from patient coaches and “get comfortable learning to know themselves and each other.”

Parkesburg Mission ConneXion (South District): The Point

Churches in the Parkesburg Mission ConneXion have partnered with other churches, schools, businesses, social organizations and law enforcement for 15 years to develop and support young people through The Point, located in Parkesburg.

All these partners and more collaborate to address the needs of vulnerable students in Western Chester County. The dedicated staff and volunteers keep the faith-based, after-school, weekend and summer programs innovative, lively and responsive to the needs and concerns of their young charges.

The Point’s huge facility, a converted former grocery store on 4.25 acres of now debt-free property, includes a community center with an indoor skatepark, a gymnasium, a cafeteria with a commercial kitchen, a student chapel, fitness center, classrooms and the community’s local food cupboard.

With about 400 students, ages 8 to 18, currently enrolled in programs, more than 250 of them may show up each week after school or in the summer. Others may be there late on Friday nights, staying off the streets; and some get to enjoy weekend events and field trips during the year.

Each after-school visit to The Point includes a wholesome meal prepared and served by outside volunteers, including groups from several churches.

Academic and personal development

The Academic Enrichment Program offers students daily tutoring, computer access and reading assistance to help them improve their grades, graduate on time and set goals for post-secondary education. A variety of enrichment activities include cooking, science experiments, painting, gardening, art and music lessons—and even music composition and recording—to enhance their academic and personal development in fun, creative ways.

High-schoolers get help with applications for college, financial aid and employment, along with mentoring, college tours and career readiness workshops. And a variety of games and sports—most popularly basketball—provide social outlets to help energetic youth learn to play together, while developing athletic and leadership skills.

Students and other community residents benefit from the “Ask a Nurse” program, where bi-monthly visits by a MainLine Health nurse allows them to privately discuss and receive advice about medical concerns and also receive preventive health screenings.

There’s much more available, including daily talks with boys and girls separately to nurture their maturity and motivation, as well as self-esteem and other positive values. Bible studies, retreats and field trips are also popular.

Most of these students live in low-income, single-parent families. Many have been homeless or transient, and some have suffered from hunger and mental or physical abuse. Understandably, many also struggle academically. Such conditions make them high-risk for getting caught in the juvenile justice system or facing mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse and school truancy.

What they find at The Point is support, friendship, personal development and resources needed to address their academic, physical, emotional and spiritual needs. What they find simply is love. 

“We stay in touch with their lives here to let them know we love them,” said Dwayne Walton (below), The Point’s longtime director. “Those who are struggling need that most of all.”

He should know. Walton himself says he endured homelessness as a young child living in New York, after his father was murdered. His teachers sometimes had to “do double-duty as social workers.” He accepted Christ while in high school, drawn by young Christian adults who challenged him and his friends to basketball games and then shared their faith.

He joined an African Methodist Episcopal church located across from an abandoned crack house in inner city Queens, NY. There the older women of the church lavished love and care on him and encouraged him to do well in school. “I didn’t want to disappoint them,” he recalls.

After moving to Philadelphia in 2004 to help plant a church with some friends, Walton volunteered and spoke at a weeklong basketball camp in Chester County. Some youth there told him about The Point and invited him to come check it out.

What he discovered was just the kind of program he had long envisioned starting himself. So, he joined their ministry, which he now leads; and there he helps young people, many of whom remind him of himself.

Hazleton/Valley UM Mission ConneXion (North District): The Listening Post

When members of the Hazleton/Valley Mission ConneXion considered how they might collaborate in an outreach effort to impact lives back in 2015 they decided on a collective ministry of presence. That is, they decided to be present among the young people attending the Keystone Job Corps (KJC) center in Drums, near Hazleton, and to lend their listening ears to any who might want to talk.

With eager support from the KJC administration, the eight-church mission connexion established The Listening Post, modeled after a campus ministry program used effectively at several colleges in the region. Volunteers quietly invite Keystone students to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns freely without receiving judgment, advice or unsolicited opinions in response. What they do receive is simply kind acceptance and a lollipop.

Every Wednesday, during the two lunch periods, volunteers sit casually at dining hall tables with a few empty chairs, just waiting… sort of the way Jesus waited at the Samaritan well. But a little promotion always helps. So, there’s also a Listening Post sign, some brochures and free candy to welcome visitors or entice passers-by.

“This is not counseling or advice-giving, but friendly, non-judgmental, active listening,” said the Rev. Earl Roberts III, pastor of Lattimer UMC. “We are known to be a ministry of United Methodist churches in this area, but proselytizing is not the intention of our conversations. Spiritual issues do come up when raised by the student. And we have contacts in the administration to which we refer students for concerns that are out of our depth.”

Many of the conversations are brief, as candy is picked up, said Roberts, “but often amongst them are one or two of greater depth, proving there is value in our simple presence there.”

The most irresistible draw for many students may be two friendly canine volunteers, Sally and Moca, who come on alternate weeks to listen or just sit and be petted. Dave Orbin, a retired teacher and member of Diamond UMC in Hazleton, manned the Listening Post one day in 2016 with his yellow labrador Sally, following a campus peace rally to protest recent violence.

“A young lady sat down next to Sally and stroked her head for about 45 minutes,” Orbin recalls.  “The student did not say much, but silent tears were streaming down her face for most of the time. I tried to get her to talk, but I think Sally knew more about what she needed than I did.”   

When former KJC Director Bryan Mason later received Orbin’s report, he replied, “It is powerful beyond words the impact this ministry has been to our campus community. I’m sure Sally and Dave turned a very sad day into a tolerable day for this young lady… I’m so grateful for the Listening Post’s quiet, yet powerful model of faithfulness.”

The Job Corps center relied on that faithfulness again recently when Roberts got a request for the Listening Post to be staffed on Monday Feb. 26, in addition to the usual Wednesday schedule. A revealed school terrorism threat on Friday, Feb. 23, quickly led to a former student’s arrest without incident; but it incited fear among some students and staff.  After the recent school killings in Parkland, Fla., KJC staff felt the Listening Post could help students who might want to talk about their fears and anxieties.

“The students seemed OK; I don’t know that we were a great help,” said Roberts who stood his post with Orbin, a third volunteer and Sally. “But the school thought of us as a good resource at least, and we were present if needed,” When they explained to students why they were there on a Monday, Roberts said, “they appreciated it.”

Students often appreciate the volunteers being there, said Roberts. Some share with us their excitement about pending graduation and the fact that they already have jobs lined up.

“We get a lot of kids who are just homesick,” said another volunteer. “They want to talk about their parents, grandparents, siblings. Also, about their programs and plans for the future. Some of them have very big dreams and need some encouragement.”