Youth groups invited to take the 'Urban Challenge'
May 02, 2016
Nancy Moriarty participated in a service project in Los Angeles called "Urban Plunge"during college, and that experience has stuck with her.
Decades later, Moriarty and her teenage daughter took part in an urban service experience at the Romero Center in Camden, NJ that she found impressive in its setup and moving in its content.
"It just never left me," Moriarty said of her time in LA. "It was so different than anything I'd ever seen in my life … " The exposure to poverty on a scale she'd not encountered before, she said, raised some questions: "What is my role? How can I be more connected to my community?"
Now, Moriarty isone of the members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Springfield, MA, working on a new ministry there: the "Urban Challenge" – inspired by her experiences in LA and Camden.
Trinity is inviting youth groups to come spend a week with them in the state's fourth largest city to serve, to learn about urban life, and to reflect theologically on their experiences.
Rev. John Mueller, pastor at Trinity, said the goal is to immerse participants in city life and give them a real sense of the day-to-day struggles and joys of being urban residents.
"One, it’s an opportunity for groups to do some hands-on community service – that’s a big part of our faith," Rev. Mueller said, "but the other piece, I think, is we hope thatpeople will come to learn more about life in the city in general – and even do some demythologizing of what it is like to live in the city.Sometimes folks who don’t live in a city, they think that a city is kind of a scary place ..."
Just as members of the church started working on creating this new ministry about a year ago,they were contacted by Rev. Mike Bennett, pastor at First Parish Church in Dover, NH, who was looking for an urban mission experience for hisyouth group. The First Parish group agreed to give the developing ministry a test run.
"The summer before, we’d done a rural-based mission trip, so we were hoping for immersion in a city," Rev. Bennett said. "The Trinity folks really helped us accomplish that. They did a really great job of helping us understand the complexity of Springfield and itsissues, and itsstrengths and its character."
Rev. Mueller said Trinity designed the first Urban Challenge around the issue of food insecurity. Trinity connected with a number groups in and around the city, and the participants got to visit the regional food bank, a playground lunch-distribution program, the farmers' market, a community garden, and a food pantry. The group also rode the city bus – an experience unique to urban life.
"Then we take them on a tour, show them around," Rev. Mueller said. "We think it’s great that folks come to help people out in the community and work alongside of us, but we think it’s important that people know where they are so they have a better understanding of their context."
For Rev. Bennett, at least, it seems that goal was accomplished.
"To be honest, I had served for 10 years as the pastor in the suburbright next toSpringfield, Longmeadow, and I feel like I learned about Springfield in that week than I did in my 10 years," he said.
Visits tomuseums, an ethnic restaurant and some cultural events are also part of the Urban Challenge. The arts and a rich cultural diversity are some of the benefits of urban life, Rev. Mueller said, that are important to highlight.
"We find ways to connect up to things that are happening in the city," Rev. Mueller said, "so when a group is here, we look to see what’s going on in the city and invite groups to have a night out and do something special in the city that reflects something of the wonderful diversity of the city and the gifts that the community has to offer."
Rev. Bennett saw that balance during the Urban Challenge.
"I think they presented a very hopeful, loving vision of Springfield – it wasn’t like ‘oh, it’s a terrible place, and we just have to do what we can to make it better' … it was, ‘this is a wonderful place with challenges, but also great gifts and opportunities," he said.
The Urban Challenge also includes time for prayer and reflection.
"They had journals for us to reflect on each day’s work, so there was just a nice balance of practice and reflection," Rev. Bennett said. "They just did a great job of giving us a full experience …we really got a sense for the whole city."
"I think we certainly came back with renewed appreciation for food insecurity issues and some desire to make a difference on those things in our own community," Rev. Bennett said. "I don’t think we’ve implemented much of that yet, but it’s certainly on our radar in new way."
The members of Trinity benefit from the experience as well, Rev. Mueller said.
"Part of the fun of it is having the opportunity to introduce people to our home: A community that we love and we care about, and where we’ve been called to be the church in as well," Rev. Mueller said. "People from our congregation not only worship at Trinity, they work here, and they live here, and they play here. It’s a treat for us to welcome people and to share some of the things we love about the city with them."
Will the participants in Trinity's Urban Challenge being thinking about it decades later? Moriarty doesn't know, but she hopes it will be the start of something.
"We realize we are really just planting a seed. We don't know what the impact of the experience will be for anyone. Perhaps they will gain a new understanding of the difficulties people in poverty face, or feel a new connection to someone that they didn't expect," Moriarty said. "Maybe it will eventually even impact the job they choose, where they live, and how they live their lives. We are hopeful that as they start thinking about these important issues, it will lead to future thought and action."
Take the Urban Challenge
This program is housed at Trinity United Methodist Church, and can accommodate groups of 8-16 youth. One chaperone for every five youth is required. Cost is $300 per person including meals (5 breakfasts, 5 lunches, and 2 dinners) or $150 per person without meals (kitchen facilities will be available).