Keynote: Investing in the Young
In his session, Rev. Tom Berlin asks conference attendees to consider the youngest residents in their local church mission field and ponder the question: “Whose kids are they?”
As the pastor of Floris UMC in Virginia, Tom Berlin was astounded to learn there was a Title 1 elementary school just two miles from the church. “You know there are times when things are happening in your immediate world that you simply know nothing about,” he admits, “but when we told the expert educators in our community that we wanted to bless children in some way they pointed us to Hutchinson Elementary just minutes from our church.”
Fifteen years later, the church can celebrate an impressive track record of changed lives – both in the school and in the church. During the initial stages of the partnership church members were stunned to learn there were over a dozen different languages spoken within the immigrant-heavy student population. “In our pursuit to bless children, we first had to decide if these children were our responsibility,” shares Tom. “After reading Isaiah 58, we had to ask ourselves who is our neighbor, a question many Christ followers have to revisit every day.”
Hutchison administrators accelerated the church/school partnership concept by asking Floris UMC to underwrite and help staff a summer school program for three grades of the elementary school. “They informed us that their students would not have a dependable source of food to eat if left to their own devices,” he says, “and they would not only lose ground academically, they would be potentially targeted by gangs while largely unsupervised during the day.” The challenge before them: finding 100 volunteers, a certified teacher for each classroom, transportation and meals for the children – to the tune of $15,000. “We put the word out of this need and our church members put the word out to their friends and family as well and I’m here to report that we had this covered in 48 hours,” shares Tom. “I tell you this to remind you that you have no idea where God will take you until you step out in obedience. There are many churches in the community but not in community with that community, if you know what I mean – and we have learned the difference and have sponsored the summer school for Hutchison for the last six years.”
A Great Source of Unity
Joking with attendees about Methodists not always agreeing on everything, Tom reminded the crowd that there is generally unanimous agreement when it comes to blessing children. “We have fiery liberals and tea party conservatives in our church but when it comes to blessing children, we get our focus on where God is heading, and we quickly see that this work is changing each of us as much as it is changing the children.”
He spoke of the blessings of seeing young adults take days and weeks off to tutor or help lead the effort, retirees reading to children, Boy and Girl Scout troops helping fill backpacks with groceries. “I even had a 90-year old member, who had often told me she was done with volunteering, jump at the chance to tell the children about the history of the area, when children asked to hear her stories,” he adds. “These kind of partnerships are scalable and provide something for everyone. I had hoped we could change the school but what has happened over the last 15 years is that we are seeing poverty and immigration through real people and our convictions are changing.”
What is at Stake in your Church?
With the Floris/Hutchinson partnership everything is at stake, he says. “If someone doesn’t bring groceries to church, a child will go hungry that week. If a volunteer skips their mentoring session, a child will regress academically,” he shares. “What’s happening in many of our churches these days is that there is nothing at stake, no real consequences if the church is not there tomorrow.” He challenged delegates to return to their local churches and consider starting something possible and sustainable that is serious and risky and relational. “Walk in and ask how you can help, and see what happens,” notes Tom. “No big talk -- without follow through --because that disgraces Jesus. If you are among the many churches already involved in life changing, face to face ministry, then perhaps you just need to be affirmed, thanked and hear ‘well done.’”
Investing in the Young: Lessons Learned
- Begin with the possible.
- Follow through.
- Be a humble partner. (Ask what they need and how they need it.)
- Make it about relationships.
- Seek resources (such as “Engaging Local Schools” or “Educate All of God’s Children”)