“Why are you doing this when you could be at the pool or playing video games with your friends?” This is the question that I loved to ask campers every summer for the four years I co-directed “Summer in the City”, a mission based camp for middle school youth in the Raleigh, NC, area. Much to my surprise, I never received the answer “because my parents made me.”
“Summer in the City” (SITC) was a program hosted by the Capital Area Presbyterian Churches Inc. (CAPCI) and First Presbyterian Church, Raleigh. This 4-day camp offered local middle school youth the opportunity to come together to serve their local community in a variety of ways. The youth sorted donated clothes at thrift shops, bagged potatoes at the local food bank, washed cars for an organization that fixes and resells cars to families who couldn’t otherwise afford a car, gleaned cabbages, and everything in between! The goal of Summer in the City was to open the eyes of the youth – mostly from comfortable, suburban families – to the need that surrounds them in their own community. Our aim was to highlight the fact that we don’t have to travel abroad to encounter poverty, oppression, or inequality – and thus to fulfill our Christian call to break those yokes and love our neighbors as ourselves.
It is all too easy for us to close our eyes to the needs in our community: Just roll up the windows, turn on the radio, and look straight ahead. These youth spent 4 days striving to do exactly the opposite.
Over the course of the four years I was there, this program grew to be well-known and well-loved by local organizations as we returned with more excited youth every summer. The staff and volunteers at the organizations that we visited knew that they could ask these youth to do almost anything and they would hear all kinds of laughter and excitement as they worked. As I spoke with organization leaders, I learned about their struggle to recruit volunteers to engage in local service work in the face of the better-publicized onslaught of international needs. They told me they rarely found groups of energetic and excited youth like ours knocking on their door; more often they received tired, over-worked adults whose job required a certain number of community service hours, or cursory visits from church groups in the middle of stewardship season.
What struck me the most was that these youth were giving up part of their precious and longed-for summer vacation and volunteering to work – something that their parents were quick to assure me me NEVER happens at home. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something incredible was happening here.
A city like Raleigh could easily be characterized by the number of businesses that surround you as you walk the streets, or the traffic that comes to a halt on I-440 when you are late to a meeting. For the majority of the middle schoolers in SITC – remember, middle-to-upper-class Presbyterian youth from the suburbs – this is how they understood their city. I would venture to say that most of the people, places, and situations we encountered foreign to them – a shock to the system to say the least! So what brought them there! One 8th grader said it best as we sorted through mostly expired toiletries at a food pantry, “I am here because nothing makes me happier than seeing the smile on someone’s face when I know that my small actions have made a difference in their life.” This powerful, mature response was only one of many that I heard over the course of four years.
When Jesus commissioned the disciples and sent them to all corners of the world, he didn’t tell them to hop on a plane and bypass all those in between!
Summer in the City highlighted the importance of local urban ministry. Yes, there are people in great need all over the world, but there are also people in need right here in our back yards. The youth were confronted with this reality every day upon our return to First Presbyterian Church, where they saw people lined up waiting to speak with the Outreach coordinator in hopes of receiving assistance with anything from a bus pass to a job. One young man in 7th grade came up to me in tears one day because he had finally realized why he never got to go to his best friend’s house: he had just seen his friend’s mom living at the shelter where they were cleaning walls.
It is all too easy for us to close our eyes to the needs in our community: Just roll up the windows, turn on the radio, and look straight ahead. These youth spent 4 days striving to do exactly the opposite. In doing so, the lives they changed included their own. It only took a few minutes for them to realize how closely they were living to those in need, and their response – a desire to work even harder and reach out even further – is something that can’t be taught in the walls of a Sunday School room.
It was my time spent in ministry alongside these incredible youth that helped me hear my own call to ministry. As I prepare to graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in May, the wise words of my SITC youth continue to resonate in my mind. Keeping in mind the 7th grader who didn’t know why he couldn’t go home with his friend, I strive daily not just reach out to my neighbors, but to join together with them. I will know what is going on in many of their lives, but simple, personalizing, human, interactions like a smile or greeting can change both of us in ways that I may never fully understand.
Urban ministry isn’t just about sending checks or donating a basket of items, or traveling to a far off land. It is about seeing the needs in one’s own community and allowing those needs to shape the way that we live our own lives.
When Jesus commissioned the disciples and sent them to all corners of the world, he didn’t tell them to hop on a plane and bypass all those in between! Instead, Jesus calls them – and us! – to reach out to all whom they met along the way, beginning in their own backyards. For the Presbyterian youth in Raleigh – and for myself – Summer in the City did just that. The numbers speak: the program grew from 13 youth in 2007 to over 60 in 2010. Our youth have a desire to reach out, spending thousands of dollars on a plane ticket to fly them to another country is not the only way to answer that call! Introduce the youth at your church to the many opportunities in your own community. You never know – it might change them and you along the way!
Urban ministry isn’t just about sending checks or donating a basket of items, or traveling to a far off land. It is about seeing the needs in one’s own community and allowing those needs to shape the way that we live our own lives. It seems to me that the youth I worked with at Summer in the City have internalized this lesson. Have we?
AUTHOR BIO: Jordan L. Buck is completing the Masters of Divinity program at Union Presbyterian Seminary and will graduate in May 2014. Jordan has a passion for working with people of all ages as they try to find new ways to break down boundaries and gather together as the body of Christ.
To read other articles from Week 1: Seek the Peace of the City, click here.
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