Draw the Circle Wide: Youth Mission and Conversations on Race, Bias, and Privilege

abingtoncovcon_23sept2016

by Rev. Greg Klimovitz


Something sacred happens when the church creates space for young people to form community across various lines of division. This was evident in the summer of 2016, as the youth ministry of Abington Presbyterian Church partnered with Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church* in Baltimore. Fourteen youth from this suburban Philadelphia congregation participated with over thirty inner city Baltimore children from Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School as part of Brown Memorial’s week-long music camp. “So many times in that week it was clear we were on holy ground- all of us reaching toward God,” said Rev. Diane Jamison Fitch, Associate Pastor at Abington Presbyterian Church.

While the rehearsals, daily programming, and end-of-week concert were central to the youths’ role as camp counselors, what was of equal value was the way the week provided a platform for young people to intersect with the realities of race, bias, and privilege. Originally scheduled for one weekend in 2015, the trip was postponed due to concerns related to the death of Freddie Gray. This year’s week-long trip raised awareness about how various social, economic, and racial injustices infringe upon the well-being of the very children with whom youth spent their week. “[At first] we felt like strangers,” said Caroline, member of the youth choir. “But through learning together and playing together, we quickly got to know one another and felt so comfortable together.”

As youth sang, colored, played, and ate meals alongside Eutaw-Marshburn kids, they also learned about the breakdown of the local public school system, budget and faculty cuts to music, arts, and education programs, lack of access to proper nutrition, and socio-economic obstacles many urban children encounter that impact learning potential. Abington youth even witnessed first-hand how the church stood in these gaps alongside their local neighbors, daring them to return home with a revitalized holy imagination. Rev. Jamison Fitch commented, “The question raised [by youth] was what can we do in our own context and our own community?”

In facilitated conversations, youth and adults brainstormed about how to engage their own local contexts. In small groups with paper and markers in hand, they listed whatever ideas came to mind about ministry and mission possibilities in Abington Township. Youth then exchanged worksheets and discussed what would be most meaningful and feasible to consider developing alongside their neighbors in their townships and school districts. “Students also raised the possibility with a sense of hopefulness and just curiosity,” noted John Sall, Director of Music Ministries at Abington. “Could we do something like this with ministry partners in this presbytery, with congregations and ministries that are happening within the Presbytery of Philadelphia, [and] with ministries that are already relationally connected with us?”

At the conclusion of the week, youth of Abington and children of Eutaw-Marshburn united their voices before local members of the community, congregation, and families of the elementary children as part of a collaborative concert. Together, they sang a selection that captured the spirit of the week and the call of the youth, “Let this be our song! Let this be our prayer. No one stands alone. Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide!” (“Draw the Circle Wide,” by Mark Miller).

As the youth returned from their week in Baltimore, these lyrics turned liturgy framed many of their reflections. How would they draw the circle wider than their own congregation? How would they expand the circumference of God’s love in Jesus Christ to include neighbors across various socio-economic and racial lines? How could their understanding of church mission transcend a week-long trip and become a part of how they live into their call in their school districts, townships, and through presbytery partnerships?
These questions are all of our questions, too. May the whole church dare to have the same holy curiosity evident in the youth of Abington as we draw the circles of God’s kingdom wider still. In so doing, we just may encounter something very sacred in the very communities we call home. We just may encounter what it means to be called children of God.