Youth groups move from charity to justice

by Angela Moyer, RIPPLE (Allentown, Pa.) & Ben Wideman, Salford (Harleysville, Pa.)

Salford and Ripple youthBen:  As Salford prepared to experience Mennonite Church USA’s biannual gathering in Phoenix, AZ we understood that this was going to be a different kind of experience.  We knew that there were a whole host of reasons that various churches were in favor of attending and not attending.  One of the dramatic factors of a trip to the Southwest was that several of our sister congregations would be unable to afford the travel expenses.

As we began to get a sense of what we could afford, and how much we could offer in support of other youth groups, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Angela share with a group of youth pastors that she was interested in taking a group from their congregation but needed financial assistance.  It seemed like perfect timing – not just for financial support, but for deepening relationships with a congregation we knew little about.

Angela:  The invitation for RIPPLE youth to join Salford’s youth group on their trip to Phoenix was a hope and a wish come true.  It was evidence that all of our talk about sharing power and resources had some feet.  And as we began to make plans and think about what it would take in order to make this a healthy and positive experience for both groups, I realized that this was going to be more than a simple act of generosity or charity.

I had no idea what it would be like for RIPPLE youth to experience Convention.  I knew that it would be different for them than for youth who grow up in fairly stable, middle class churches and communities but I could not anticipate what their experience would be.  What I did know was that they deserved the opportunity to go just as much as other youth, if not more.  As we began to make plans for how to make this a positive experience, we soon realized that it would be more than a one week event in Phoenix.  Relationships needed to be built prior to a week-long trip together.

Ben:  Angela and I were in agreement from the onset that this had to be a shared experience.  Salford had supported other churches in the past by simply writing a check, but this time our youth and sponsors wanted to have a deeper connection than that.  We knew that this would be challenging; the simple geographic barriers, nuanced cultural contexts, and busy schedules meant that we had to work to get just one or two opportunities on the calendar for the respective youth to connect with each other.

Angela:  Relationships between people with very different backgrounds take time and effort to develop.  After they’re developed, then true relationships need to be maintained at some level.  It’s one thing to receive one or two gifts graciously, but to continue to receive them is hard.  And to believe that the non-financial gifts that you have to offer back is just as valuable as money is hard too.

Then, in typical RIPPLE fashion, the needs grew faster than what I could keep up with.  Shortly after registering two youth and myself for Convention with Salford’s group, another responsible youth began attending and significantly contributing to RIPPLE.  Now what do we do about the youth trip to Convention?  Thankfully, in God’s abundance, Deep Run East Mennonite was willing to contribute finances for this third youth to attend Convention.

Ben:  It seems obvious now, but looking back, I was unaware of the complexity of planning a trip like this.  Families from both churches had life experiences come up that changed their summer plans.  Conference registration and payment is challenging enough for 20 people from one church.  Add in hotel reservations (and roommate assignments), plane tickets, airport transportation, and youth from a whole other church, and this trip became an interesting logistical challenge.

Angela:  But this was just the beginning of being overwhelmed with the gaps to be bridged between the two groups; this is why I think our collaborative effort begins to point towards justice rather than mere generosity.  The partnership between RIPPLE and Salford offered opportunity to those who otherwise would not have been able to engage, for both groups to learn from one another.  The relationship is ongoing; although one phase is over, much is still unfinished.  This collaboration was and continues to be overwhelming on a variety of layers requiring more than what can be anticipated and offered.  And yet this is the space where God’s Spirit seems to be moving and providing.

Ben:  The relationship between Salford and RIPPLE will continue to be a work in progress.  We are two sister congregations, but we are made up of a huge cross-section of families and perspectives.  Oftentimes it is uncomfortable to have to work through what it means to be relating to people beyond the walls of our church building, but we trust that there will be a blessing and growth in this process.  We hope to continue to build this relationship so that our youth will begin to see themselves as a part of something larger than our respective church family.  I hope Salford and RIPPLE (and many other churches too!) will reach a point where relating with people from other contexts is not simply tolerated, but expected and valued.