It also makes for bright futures
by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterians Today
Samuel Polanco is no stranger to the power of walls — especially their potential to exclude and keep people like him from being their best selves. But the 2022 graduate of the Menaul School — a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related college preparatory school in Albuquerque, New Mexico — credits his educational experience as being instrumental in breaking down many barriers.
“I’d been bullied a lot in elementary school, not only by the students but also by their parents,” said Polanco. “When I came to Menaul, I felt free to explore the ideas I wanted to explore, learn what I wanted to learn and just be myself for once in my life.” He also gained a deeper understanding of how damaging walls — both literal and figurative — can be in society.
This past April, the 35 members of the class of 2022 volunteered on the U.S.-Mexico border during mission week through Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian border ministry in Arizona. “One thing that the students got out of the experience of seeing this ‘scar’ on the earth [the border wall] is that the most dangerous walls are the walls in our minds,” said John Sitler, who teaches religious studies at Menaul.
Wherever the students saw hate and division, Sitler said they were glad to have an opportunity to connect with others in person. “Jesus is the model for that,” he said.
Polanco’s education was made possible by gifts to the PC(USA)’s Christmas Joy Offering, which helps Menaul provide scholarships to students. A Presbyterian tradition since the 1930s, the annual offering distributes gifts equally to the Board of Pensions’ Assistance Program and to Presbyterian schools and colleges equipping communities of color.
Called to connect
Living out the call to connect with others also has special resonance for the Rev. Ben Franklin Whitfield.
Honorably retired since 2007 in the Presbytery of Wabash Valley, Whitfield suffered a stroke in January 2021. It was the connectional church, which Presbyterians like to talk about, that proved indispensable to him at his own time of greatest need.
After his hospital stay and rehabilitation, he was released into the care of his wife, Helen, and allowed to return home. Facing financial hardships after a lifetime in ministry serving primarily rural congregations, the Whitfields received an Emergency Assistance grant through the Board of Pensions. Later they received a housing supplement specifically for retirees receiving home health care, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2022.
Whitfield, while grateful and touched by the assistance, wasn’t surprised. He had learned from an early age that the PC(USA) brings people together. It was the Presbyterian tradition that first connected him more deeply with his own father, whose nonattendance at church prompted young Ben at one time to drop out until his father agreed to start going with him again. During his years at McCormick Theological Seminary, Whitfield connected with the burgeoning civil rights movement in 1960s Chicago and ultimately with the former Helen Simms, now his wife of 54 years.
When Ben and Helen married on Aug. 25, 1968, they faced challenges as an interracial couple in the ’60s. But their years together serving the church and raising their four daughters in the face of familial and societal adversity steeled them for whatever circumstance or crisis came their way. It also taught them enduring life lessons about gratitude.
“How greatly we understand the uniqueness of the Presbyterian Church in its call to help people as Christ commands,” said Helen. “And now, having so carefully laid out the importance of giving to the Christmas Joy Offering in the rural congregations where Ben was pastor, we are so grateful to directly benefit from such financial assistance in our great need since Ben’s stroke.”
Surrounded by supporters
Like the Whitfields, Kyley Thompson is no stranger to familial challenges. Growing up in a low-income family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which didn’t give much encouragement for the pursuit of higher education, Thompson knew that her maternal grandmother, Anne Barbara Benedict — the immediate family’s only college graduate — was her tower of strength.
“When we were kids, we struggled a lot with poverty, with our parents gone to jobs all the time,” Thompson said. “And although my grandmother tried to encourage me and my cousins to go to college, when there’s only one person encouraging you to do something, it’s hard.”
Determined to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps — even as she faced the prospect of bearing the prohibitive cost of higher education alone — Thompson enrolled at a large public university but quickly realized that the environment was overwhelming.
That’s when Stillman College stepped in. The small, close-knit community right in her own backyard became Thompson’s whole world.
Stillman, located on a 105-acre campus in Tuscaloosa, was founded in 1876 by a group of Presbyterians led by the Rev. Dr. Charles Allen Stillman, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tuscaloosa. Initially established as a training school for African American ministers, today the college is “committed to fostering academic excellence, to providing opportunities for diverse populations, and to maintaining a strong tradition of preparing students for leadership and service by fostering experiential learning and community engagement.”
“When Kyley enrolled at Stillman, she found a caring faculty and staff who were willing to assist her with the challenges of financial aid applications,” said Dr. Cynthia Warrick, Stillman’s president since 2017. “She found small classes with a family feel, peers and teachers who expressed support and advising that lifted her through tough moments while working on her degree.”
Without a doubt, the toughest of those moments was the death of her grandmother during Thompson’s sophomore year at Stillman. Following the loss of her biggest cheerleader, Thompson took time off from school and thought about not going back because she couldn’t afford it. But because Stillman takes to heart its commitment to remove financial barriers and assist every one of its students in meeting the cost of their education, faculty and staff members helped her to stay in school by connecting her with additional scholarships, loans and even financial assistance with her rent.
Although Thompson graduated two years later than originally planned, she did so with honors as well as with a presidential fellowship to do historical research at Stillman.
“Maybe I didn’t deserve it, but it felt great,” she said. “I knew my grandmother would be very proud of me, and I knew my degree would take me other places.”
Debt relief for pastors
Worlds away from college life in the U.S. — although himself a product of one — the Rev. Sunjae Jung heard God’s call loud and clear, but maybe not so clearly at first.
“When I heard about a Korean American Presbyterian church in the Atlanta area, my first answer was, ‘I don’t think it’s my calling,’ because there are over 200 of those churches and a lot of Korean pastors already in Georgia,” said Jung. “Since I was living in Korea at the time, my first answer was no. Then, when they contacted me again and told me the church was in a university city and that it has a special mission for the younger generation, I remembered being an international student myself in America when I was young and how much the church there helped me.”
Still, Jung’s decision wasn’t an easy one. To move to the U.S. for one salaried position at the Athens Korean Presbyterian Church with his three children and wife, Mikyung — a former kindergarten teacher who was not permitted to work right away — would be no small undertaking.
Jung explained that because the congregation, which originated 38 years ago in a Bible study for international students, is largely young and transitory, raising the funds needed to carry out the church’s ministry would also be a challenge. And although Jung was aware of the church’s history and knew from his experience as a “preacher’s kid” that money could sometimes be tight, when they moved to Athens in December 2019, he couldn’t have anticipated the impact that Covid would have on both his family’s and his congregation’s finances.
With the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020, not only did the church cease all its in-person activities and move Sunday worship to a streaming platform, but the whole town practically shut down.
“The university stopped nearly everything,” Jung said. “All of the undergraduate students returned to Korea, and the visiting scholars stopped coming.”
By late 2021, when the family found itself incurring debt and struggling to make ends meet, Jung turned to the Board of Pensions for help, receiving an emergency grant from the Assistance Program that was split evenly with Northeast Georgia Presbytery, where he is a member.
“When Sunjae shared with me about his financial struggles, mostly due to starting a new call at the beginning of the pandemic, I immediately thought of the Assistance Program,” said the Rev. Hilary Shuford, general presbyter of Northeast Georgia Presbytery. “And I am so glad that our presbytery was able to partner in that grant to help one of its dear pastors.”
The grant also opened the door for Jung to seek additional help through the Assistance Program’s new project: Minister Debt Relief. Launched in the beginning of 2022, the three-year pilot program will provide 150 grants per year, up to $10,000, to help pastors pay down debt and achieve greater financial health.
As Jung looks toward the future with renewed hope, he and his wife are grateful that their children never seemed especially worried about the family’s financial situation, and that they could always count on a listening ear and the support of the connectional church in their time of need.
“I really thank the denomination for the big help from the Christmas Joy Offering,” Jung said. “I can say that after going through such a difficult time last winter, the big burden on me and my family was lifted. Sometimes we just need help. And sometimes God uses somebody to help us.”
Your gifts to the Christmas Joy Offering provide leadership development opportunities and help Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color provide quality education for our future leaders.
Emily Enders Odom is the associate director of Mission Communications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
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Categories: Presbyterians Today, Special Offerings
Tags: assistance program, athens koream presbyterian church, christmas joy offering, frontera de cristo, helen whitfield, john sitler, kyley thompson, mccormick theological seminary, Menaul School, minister debt relief, mkyung jung, northeast georgia presbytery, presbyterian schools and colleges equipping communities of color, presbyterians today, presbytery of wabash valley, rev. ben whitfield, rev. sunjae jung, samuel polanco, Special Offerings, stillman college
Ministries: Presbyterians Today, Special Offerings