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A letter from Doug Baker in Northern Ireland

November 2012

Dear Friends,

This is the 19th year for the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer program.   During those years over 1,200 volunteers have served at sites in the U.S. and around the world—109 of them in Northern Ireland.  I want to introduce you to the 8 who started their YAV year here in September and give you a little flavor of how they are using their particular skills to enhance the witness of the congregations and community ministries to which they have been assigned. 

Each of these volunteers spends part of the week in a local congregation assisting with youth and other areas of ministry and the other part of the week in some project addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s decades of civil strife.  As you would expect, they are involved in leading youth fellowships and Sunday School or Bible study groups and assisting in worship.  I want to share some of the more unusual activities each has found herself or himself engaged with in the church or through the faith-based initiative outside the formal church where they spend the other portion of their week

Northern Ireland YAVs 2012-13: David, Tricia, Beth, Courtney, Anna, Kathryn, Grace and TJ

Grace McMullan from North Lakeland Presbyterian Church in Florida is sharing her interest in cooking with some of the youth at The LINK drop-in center in Newtownards and helping them to discover the satisfaction of making their own snacks and meals. Before joining the YAV program Grace studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art.  Now, following a request from a couple of members at Regent Street Presbyterian Church, one of the new activities Grace has introduced there is an art club. The first week there were just two who came, but each week since it has grown.  What is even more exciting is that those attending range from early teens to somewhere in the 70s.  It is one of the few activities in the life of the congregation where all ages interact.

Beth Thompson from First Presbyterian Church in Winchester, Virginia, serves with Dundonald Methodist Church, located on the edge of a large—predominantly Loyalist—housing estate in East Belfast. Through the Dundonald Family and Community Initiative she is making a real contribution to "Sticky Fingers," a time for parents and young children from the surrounding area to enjoy each other’s company and receive support from the project staff and volunteers.  Beth also helps plan and lead “Messy Church," a midweek time for some of the same children and adults to worship and engage informally in Christian education through various creative activities.

Tricia McReynolds, from Second Presbyterian Church, Louisville, uses her considerable administrative skills to prepare bulletins and PowerPoint screens for Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church.  She is also assisting with a Bicycle (repair!) Club they have formed to encourage unemployed youth in the area to develop new skills.  At The Vine Community and Advice Centre she helps lead a midweek children’s outreach program called JAFFA (Jesus A Friend For All).  For most of the children who attend this is their only experience of "church."

David Mills from Hot Springs, Arkansas,  is helping Abbey Presbyterian Church, located in a lower-income largely Loyalist housing area in North Belfast, to develop a brand-new outreach to youth from the secondary school across the road.  Until recently they had been hanging around the outside of the building.   But now David and others from the congregation have opened up space for a drop-in where students from the school can bring their packed lunches and socialize in the warmth of the building. The hope is that the acceptance and warmth they experience from David and others from the congregation may also open up opportunities to share more with these youth.

Courtney Townsend from Westminster Presbyterian Church, Des Moines, Iowa, studied graphic journalism and photography.  As a YAV she is helping Garnerville Presbyterian Church develop its website, newsletter, and other communications to strengthen community within the congregation and reach out to others in the area.  She is also stimulating children in a local elementary school to find excitement in learning and enhance their skills by working on their own newsletter.  By providing links to web pages of the community center, the nearby Church of Ireland parish, or other groups in Knocknagoney she hopes to strengthen local outreach partnerships.

Hiking in the Mourne Mountains—Autumn Retreat

Anna Owens, from First Presbyterian Church, Sumter, South Carolina, is serving with Whitehouse Presbyterian Church, situated in a "no man’s land" between housing areas identified respectively with Loyalist and Republican factions in North Belfast.  A qualified music teacher, Anna is also sharing her gifts with an elementary school nearby.  In addition she works one day a week at The Vine Community and Advice Centre in a low-income interface area in North Belfast.  In her placement interview Anna told me teaching anything to do with computers is one thing she would be no good at doing.  Having begun doing just that at the Vine, Anna now writes: 

            “I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised. There are eight people in the course, most of whom are elderly and have never used a computer before and don’t have one at home. It’s provided me with a special kind of challenge: how do you explain something that is completely second nature to you and completely foreign to someone else? For example, one of the women with whom I spend a great deal of time during the class is 77 years old. She didn’t know how to turn on a computer when she walked through the door, and she has a particularly hard time understanding how to use the mouse. I had to first think quite consciously of the way I hold a mouse, explain what it meant to click, and also explain that the arrow on the screen is what you’re controlling with your hand on the mouse. Whew. It’s a challenge for me, it’s a challenge for them, but we all seem to have a good time regardless.”

Kathryn Cunningham from Grand Rapids, Nebraska, is serving with East Belfast Mission (EBM), which is both a congregation and a social outreach centre of the Methodist Church in Ireland located along the Newtownards Road in low-income inner East Belfast.  She has also been thrown into the exciting task of helping EBM move from its temporary quarters into a very dynamic new complex called Skainos (a Greek word for pitching your tent).  Skainos is an expression of incarnational ministry.  Covering nearly an entire city block, this initiative of EBM, which has been in the planning and construction phase for several years, now houses not only the EBM offices and a multipurpose space used by the congregation for Sunday worship, but also a community café, a sports hall, offices for several other charities, classrooms for a local higher education college, a day centre for the elderly and another for those with mental health issues.  The upper floors provide both privately owned and social housing apartments for over 100 people.  What an exciting—and busy!—moment for Kathryn to arrive as part of the EBM team.

At Woodvale Methodist Church in West Belfast, TJ Piccolo, from First Presbyterian Church, Alma, Michigan, is making a particular impact with younger children and is seen as a real gift  because of his natural way of relating to some who have special needs.  At The 174 Trust, an interdenominational group operating a community and youth centre in a low-income Nationalist area of North Belfast he assists with  a cross-community (youth from both pro-Irish and pro-British districts) soccer group and also the weekly club for young people with various disabilities. 

The PC(USA) has placed a strong focus on young adults in its new five-year plan. As a result, the YAV program has been challenged to grow in size and scope threefold over the next five years. This doesn’t mean that there will be three times as many in Northern Ireland.  There may well be one or two additional positions here, but most of the growth will be in new sites in the U.S. and around the world.  There are already several places wishing to develop new YAV sites.  Our bigger problem is recruitment of candidates.  This is a great program, but not enough young adults know about it or feel they could make the commitment. One great help—the fund-raising requirements have been cut in half!  Participants are now asked to raise at least $3,000 for national service and $4,000 for international, instead of the higher figures in more recent years.

The strapline of the YAV program is “A year of service…for a lifetime of change.”  One of my real joys has been to reconnect with those who served 2, 5, even 15 years ago and hear them recount how that experience really has influenced who they are and what they are doing now. We need everyone’s help to get the word about the YAV program out to those who might be interested.   Details about the YAV program can be found at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/yav/.   Please consider who you might encourage to participate.

Faithfully yours,

Doug Baker

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 268
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 278

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