Picking kale in a field for a couple of days outside of the metro Washington D.C. area to then see it delivered to an economically challenged neighborhood later as you host a picnic for the families provides the ability to see firsthand the delight on recipients’ faces.
While serving in a food and clothing warehouse in Kentucky, a man pulls up a chair to tell of being a drug addict and living in crack houses, and then shares how much it means to have people care enough to help.
Our regular fall task of raking the yards of elderly church members yields one man coming to his front door in a wheelchair, tears in his eyes, to share how much he appreciates our time and effort.
Faces of residents lighting up as Christmas carols are sung and cards are handed out at a local nursing home do not go unnoticed by anyone in the room.
These are just a handful of examples of how the middle school and high school youth from Covenant Presbyterian Church have encountered the human side of service work in the mission field. We have found that when given the challenge to serve in meaningful ways, teens step up and thrive.
Our high school youth have been serving The River Food Pantry (The River) in a variety of ways for years. They have served through the excellent in-house meal programs at The River on Friday evenings, and have encountered kids their own ages and younger from working-class families who are struggling to get by. This always makes quite an impression because our youth realize economic challenges are not just found with adults sleeping in a downtown park.
Whenever we go to The River, we meet people who come there week after week to help. Some who are currently serving were previously the ones served. They want to give back and it’s simply amazing. Over and over again I see our youth moved by the people they meet.
Our youth have also gone to grocery stores to shop for nonperishable food items for individuals as well. It gives them a chance to learn what good food is and that it isn’t a bag of chips. They also work within a budget, something very few of them do on a daily basis.
This past December, our youth took part in the Christmas gift program of The River and purchased gifts for 32 of their clients. Again working within a budget, they shopped for specific things for people. It became even more personal when they addressed a package to an individual, sometimes someone their own age.
The youth have also taken part in the wonderful mission of the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. The bigger picture of hunger is seen as they are first shown the huge warehouse and given information about how much food it takes to do the job. During a three-hour shift, they work in the warehouse packing food for distribution to food pantries located throughout southern Wisconsin.
On the first Saturday of March each year, we have a great tradition of hosting a very large Trash & Treasure Sale. The youth, their parents, and many other adults from the congregation work for a week coordinating the sale. People ages 11 to 85 work together knowing their efforts will benefit many outside our own brick walls.
The Trash & Treasure Sale funds the local food and Christmas gift shopping programs, and provides money toward mission trips. Mission trips happen every summer for high school youth and every third year for the middle school group. In July 2016, the mission trip was to St. Louis, where there was an opportunity for all to roll up their sleeves and break some serious sweat. Fifteen percent of the 2016 net earnings went directly toward the outside charities we worked with in St. Louis.
So why is this so important? In our church setting, we teach that serving others is a part of our call as Christians. It’s a part of our covenant with God. In a secular setting, it could be seen as simply the right thing to do. People reaching out to other people not for any reward or grand prize. It’s about the human condition and not walking away.
It can be easy to get fired up for a big mission trip or a fancy, special, one-time event. Every year, we see news stories about Thanksgiving meals being served, and that is good. But we see the real difference being made in the lives of people when serving others is a way of life. People are hungry and in need throughout the year.
Parents of teens can make a real difference, too. They have the greatest influence. Families go to great lengths to accommodate the demanding schedules of athletic or other programs. There are great things to be gained from participation in these programs, but where does serving fellow human beings fall on the family radar? A family serving together a couple of times a year can send a powerful message to teens. Make the time. Take the time. Smartphones and apps may be all consuming, but the only app needed for the gift of mission work is the application of one’s self. In my over two decades of working with teenagers, I have seen again and again that when given opportunity and the encouragement, teens respond.
Steve Royalton is the Youth Ministries Coordinator at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Madison.
Covenant Presbyterian Church
326 S. Segoe Road
Madison, WI 53705
A Participant’s Experience
My experience being involved in a Christian youth group has proven to be an unforgettable journey. I have done a lot through mission work, including locally, from Second Harvest Foodbank to an American Indian Reservation and everything in between.
At Second Harvest, we repackaged large quantities of food to be redistributed. I loved working there because the employees were always upbeat and passionate about feeding Madison.
My favorite part of youth group was the mission trips. I would spend a week in another state with other high school students to do a variety of things, like gleaning crops, serving meals, and organizing secondhand retail shops. One of my favorite memories was when we were in Washington D.C. It was scorching hot out, and my team went to a neighborhood tennis court filled with lower-income housing. We went there to turn the tennis court into a garden so the people in the neighborhood could have fresh food nearby. While we were there, the man that ran the organization saw that we were struggling with the heat during our hard work, so he started to sing. In that moment, I felt a sense of joy wash over me and was ready to continue working. I always left the mission trips feeling good that I had the opportunity to help others and influence their lives in a positive way. This feeling encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and be of service in any situation.
Along with the mission trips, I made great connections with people my age. Youth group is a really cool place to go have some fun while talking about topics that matter. Walking through the church doors and knowing that you belong to something great is an empowering feeling. I love that I have a safe place to talk about things I’m passionate about. Church has also been a place where I can trust people who would be willing to help me if I were in a bad situation. The community that has helped me through my journey of faith will always have a special place in my heart, and I love knowing that I will always have them.
This summer was my last mission trip, wrapping up my time at youth group before leaving for college. Looking back at my four years of youth group makes me realize I couldn’t have become the person I am today without the community of my church helping me along the way.
Lillie Perry was a Middleton High School Senior.