Mission-minded kids are tomorrow’s hope
July 13, 2018
Children and teens swarmed around First United Presbyterian’s churchyard, their laughter and chatter almost as loud as the buzzing of the summer mosquitoes. Poles were scattered on the grass, as were piles of shapeless pieces of neon orange nylon, black tarp and Army green canvas.
The kids of Salem, New York, a rural village on the Vermont border, were excited because they were camping out to raise awareness — and money — to buy a ShelterBox.
The Salem Rotary had told the children about how Rotary International provides shelter to families displaced by political conflicts and natural disasters. They learned that for $1,000, one box — containing items such as a family-sized tent, cooking utensils, blankets and solar-powered lights — would provide the basic comforts for a family who had lost their home. And so, a campout was planned.
The kids didn’t just pitch their tents, though. They also helped representatives from ShelterBox, who came to the campout and set up an actual tent that a family would be living in. Once the tent was up, participants ages 5 to 16 stepped inside and got a firsthand look at how they would be helping others.
By the time the last tent came tumbling down the following morning, the kids had raised $520. While the money raised was not enough to cover the cost of one ShelterBox, it was still enough to give the children of First United a sense of helping a world in need.
Christian educators stress the importance of hands-on mission projects when teaching children about being the hands and feet of Christ. And while taking a collection of loose change at vacation Bible school or asking for cans of food to be brought in on a Sunday morning is a valuable exercise for children, they agree it is beneficial to physically connect the children inside the church to the hurting world outside.
“Jesus taught us to love one another. How did he teach his disciples that? By showing them. It’s really that simple,” said Amy Thetford, vacation Bible school coordinator and former Christian education director at First United. “When we raised money for ShelterBox, the children got to see the tent. Some even got to experience a night in the ShelterBox tent. That experience will stay with them for a lifetime.”
Brett Eaton agrees with Thetford about the impact that hands-on mission projects can have on children. “As a child or teen, the impact of seeing how some people are forced to live with much less than ourselves will last so much longer than just donating a few shirts or pants that don’t fit anymore,” he said.
While Eaton doesn’t discount the value of donating clothes, food or money — “many times these are very important for foundations and charities to exist,” he says — he believes the best type of donation children can learn to give is their time.
“For younger generations, giving their time is the most important way we can teach gratitude and perspective,” he said.
Traditional Sunday school is just one step in Christian education for children and teens, experts say.
“What we also need is to connect abstract ideas to real life,” Thetford said.
For example, First Presbyterian Church in San Luis Obispo, California, has adopted a school in Haiti, and the children of the church recently raised funds to buy the Haitian children portable soccer fields and soccer balls.
“Our kids were so excited to learn about the kids in Haiti,” said Jenifer Rabenaldt, director of children’s education. “They asked the best questions and really gave us a chance to have an honest conversation.”
The children also wrote cards with their pictures on the front. The cards were then hand-delivered by the church’s mission team, which visited the school in Haiti. Rabenaldt also had the children make a short video for the mission team to show the schoolchildren in Haiti.
The children of San Luis Obispo are also learning to be the hands and feet of Christ in their own backyard by making blessing bags for families who spend a night in the church’s makeshift homeless shelter. The children have collected things like socks, healthy snacks and water to put in the bags along with a verse of Scripture.
“The kids love putting the bags together and are learning how important the little things can be,” Rabenaldt said.
The makeshift shelter, however, raises an important reminder to those leading children in mission. That is, to respect the privacy of those being helped and to respect the comfort level of the children doing the helping.
“Unfortunately, we can’t allow the kids to visit the families when they are at the church’s shelter because there may be some kids staying that go to school with our children. That creates an uncomfortable situation,” Rabenaldt said.
While the children don’t visit when families are there, Rabenaldt does take them on a tour of the shelter when all of the cots are set up.
“This intentional learning will hopefully follow them throughout their lives,” Rabenaldt said, adding that she hopes when the children get older their hearts for mission will continue to grow.
Meanwhile, children at First United in Salem have incorporated a spirit of giving in vacation Bible school, creating comfort bears for the local rescue squad.
“Our littlest ones were thrilled to be creating something for someone else,” Thetford said. “Every day for five days straight they were excited to make more bears. It never became ‘Oh, I have to make another one.’ They would tell me of the ideas they had for how they were going to decorate their bears that day. Each day was different. At the end of the week, our rescue squad came with the ambulance to pick up the bears. The kids were so excited.”
At Culver City Presbyterian Church in Culver City, California, children look forward to participating in the Big Sunday Lemonade Brigade, which raises money for a community emergency fund. The event was started by Big Sunday, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that promotes service and volunteerism at every age, says the Rev. Dr. Frances Wattman Rosenau, pastor of Culver City Presbyterian.
At one Big Sunday Lemonade Brigade, a dozen volunteers from the church’s family fellowship set up a table on the main street to sell lemonade. To the delight of the children, firefighters from the firehouse across the street joined them for a cup of lemonade and a chat.
Culver City Presbyterian hosts a service opportunity like the lemonade stand for its children a few times a year, Wattman Rosenau says, noting that it helps the children feel connected to the community.
“They are full of questions about who we are raising money for and why do they need it,” Wattman Rosenau said. “Our littlest Christians make a big difference to our neighbors.”
Such efforts have a ripple effect, Thetford says. “We are creating a sense of empathy in our kids, teaching kindness and compassion for others. Memories of these mission moments they experience are seeds being planted,” she said. “And we all know what can happen when seeds are planted.”
Donna Frischknecht Jackson, Editor, Presbyterians Today, Rural Ministry Network Pastor, Washington County, New York
Today’s Focus: Mission-minded kids
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Gracious God, thank you for the opportunities you have given us to spread your word. Help us to serve you in all our words and actions and to show your love to the entire world. Thank you. Amen.