Raising hope among children and youth


Pentecost Offering gifts brighten tomorrow

By Jessica Denson Van Hoy | Presbyterians Today

Rosalyn McKeown-Ice was looking for ways to live out her faith in her community.

A member of First Presbyterian Church of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, McKeown-Ice is active with Educate A Child (EAC), a program of the Education Above All Foundation, which aims to significantly increase the number of children worldwide who have access to education. At an EAC meeting three years ago, attendees were given the challenge to “go home and try something” in their own communities, McKeown-Ice said.

McKeown-Ice accepted the challenge. She went home and asked Sherrie Fairchild-Keyes, a fellow member of First Presbyterian, for some ideas. As the principal at Willow Brook Elementary, a school in one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Oak Ridge, Fairchild-Keyes had plenty of ideas. But one idea prevailed: tutoring.

Because McKeown-Ice accepted the challenge to do something in her community, Willow Brook Elementary now has almost 60 tutors   — nearly half of whom come from First Presbyterian. And they are making a difference.

“I see a pronounced change in some of the kids. The relationship built between a tutor and student is so important — having another adult to count on and look up to. It makes the children more excited about learning and helps build their confidence,” said Fairchild-Keyes.

 It’s not just the lives of the children that are changing. Susan Byrne, one of First Presbyterian’s volunteer tutors, says the children touch the volunteers’ lives as well.

Byrne said one little boy’s face would light up when she peeked in his classroom window.

“No one is as glad to see me all week as that little boy,” Byrne said, adding, “Now he says he wants to learn to improve his writing and asked me to help.”

The gifts made each year to the Pentecost Offering have helped First Presbyterian Church reach out to the children at Willow Brook Elementary. Forty percent of the Pentecost Offering collected by a congregation can be retained by that church to enhance the lives of young people in the church’s own community. The remaining 60% supports children at risk, youth and young adults through ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“We are asking what it means to build the household of God,” said Bryce Wiebe, director of Special Offerings at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “In this case, we are talking about what it means for us as Presbyterians to support and lift up youth, children and young adults, and I don’t mean just doing for them but living in mission with them.”

Byrne says working with children and youth is not something Presbyterians should wait to do. She encourages every congregation to look around their community to see who God “has put at your disposal.”

She encourages congregations to ask themselves, “Who are natural partners for us to work with?”

Finding acceptance

The Rev. Ashley McFaul-Erwin experienced firsthand how the Pentecost Offering can change lives.

McFaul-Erwin was a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV), and gifts to the Pentecost Offering help support the YAV program. McFaul-Erwin served in Nashville, Tennessee, at the Martha O’Bryan Center, a nonprofit that helps families break the cycle of systemic poverty. Like the members of First Presbyterian in Oak Ridge, McFaul-Erwin worked with students — although hers were a bit older. She spent a year serving with the Martha O’Bryan Center’s Top Floor, a program that helps students not only graduate from high school, but also plan what happens afterward, assisting with college applications and more.

While McFaul-Erwin still keeps in touch with some of the students she worked with as a YAV, her time serving them had a much greater impact on her than many of the students will ever know.

“The YAV program saved my life,” she said. “I’d been working as a youth and community worker in Belfast [Northern Ireland]. I had considered going into ordained ministry over there, but as a gay woman I would have had to keep part of myself secret.”

McFaul-Erwin said she didn’t know how she would be able to do “this work I felt called to do.”

“Through the YAV program I found a place where I was not only allowed in, but celebrated,” she said.

She now lives on Long Island, New York, where she serves as the community outreach pastor at Setauket Presbyterian Church in Setauket, New York.

“The YAV program laid the foundation for being embedded in the church and the local community,” she said. “They gave me this feeling of freedom and opportunity to be my authentic self. To be authentic is so much at the heart of ministry, whether I’m preaching on a Sunday morning or visiting a local homeless shelter.”

Investing in the now

Welcoming all people into ministry is one of the things Gina Yeager-Buckley appreciates about being a Presbyterian.

“There is no age limit on being called,” said Yeager-Buckley, who serves as associate for youth ministries in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “It’s not just for older adults or the middle-aged. It includes youth, children, young adults and people who are single or married. Presbyterians understand that each of us is called to be in relationship with God and to share our faith.”

Yeager-Buckley helps coordinate the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, which takes place every three years and is supported in part by the Pentecost Offering. Triennium brings together thousands of youth from around the world.

Scenes from the 2019 Youth Triennium underscore the power of reaching today’s teens with the Word of God. Gifts given to the Pentecost Offering help bolster the faith of the next generation. Presbyterian Mission Agency

“Putting it together can be challenging. We don’t have a lot of money and we have a tiny staff,” said Yeager-Buckley. “But we have hundreds of volunteers that help us.”

Of those volunteers, half are teens, she said.

The Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, who helped organize and spoke at the 2019 Triennium, says youth already have gifts to share with the church and community.

“We tend to say something like ‘We’re investing in the future because the youth are the future of our church,’ ” he said. “But our youth already have important ways to serve and lead in the church.”

Supporting the Pentecost Offering is a way to give youth the opportunity to share their gifts, he said.

“If I could speak directly to every person in the church, I would want them to know that all of us have gifts of the Spirit and are called to offer those gifts back in God’s service,” said Gambrell.

He especially encourages everyone to support the gifts of young people and to experience the joy of connecting with them.

“I think it is part of what it means to be connected in the body of Christ,” he said. “Each person should consider the grace of God that they have received and think about how they can use those gifts to serve God and serve others — specifically through the youth ministries of the church.”

It’s a joy Gambrell has experienced as both a faith leader and a father. After his presentation at the 2019 Triennium, he received something that reaffirmed his commitment — a text from his daughter, who was at the gathering. It read, “You did great. I’m so proud of you!”

Jessica Denson Van Hoy is a freelance writer in Louisville.

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