Service learning is one of the educational buzzwords touted in the 21st century as experts begin to realize that bookwork is more fruitful when blended with the opportunity to move from theory to practice. Mission educators are called to tell the story and then provide a way for the listener to move from hearing to doing, from head to hands, and in time a “heart for mission” may be created.
Engaging learners in an activity that connects the words with the world is an exciting tool for an educator to use. Jesus Christ modeled this practice in his ministry from the moment he began to draw crowds. He understood if people were to listen to life-changing messages, then feeding them might be the best initial action. If we want children growing up in a world that is increasing in population and decreasing in fairly distributed resources to be compassionate, then providing ways in which they can participate in feeding the hungry is imperative. Decorating grocery bags for food drives, bringing in cans of soup for the Souper Bowl of Caring or making cookies for a local soup kitchen are simple yet highly effective ways to connect elementary age children to feeding stories in the Bible. When a Panera Bread restaurant moves into a neighborhood, letters are sent to local non-profit organizations seeking participation in their “Operation Dough-Nation” program. Once a week, on Tuesday evenings, members of our congregation volunteer to pick up the day’s leftover baked goods. On Wednesday the carload of breads and sweets is delivered to a soup kitchen in downtown Buffalo. This is the same soup kitchen where our church prepares and serves a monthly meal. Many of our people have met the hungry and heard their stories.
Jesus spoke about welcoming the stranger, and for many it might be way out of their comfort zones to entertain thoughts of this nature. The story of the good Samaritan often has the “stranger danger” addition for children and youth, for the world today is no safer than in those days. So how can we model compassion and empathy minus the danger? Our congregation is a host site for the national interfaith organization Family Promise. Four times a year our church, along with seven others, houses homeless families in our Fellowship Hall. This program keeps family units together during a difficult transitional time. What is most appealing for people in our faith community is they are able to bring their own families to the church to eat, play and spend the night with the guests. Most volunteers report leaving their shift with a powerful sense of gratitude for their family and home situations, coupled with a sense of purpose and continued involvement in a ministry that provides hope to the homeless.
Healing the sick sounds like—and is—a tall order. What if ways to prevent illness were employed instead? Malaria kills more than one million people every year. Yet a simple mosquito net can significantly reduce the rates of infection. A college student in our congregation is founder and CEO of the Congo Leadership Initiative (CLI). Nathaniel Houghton and his board of directors have a mission to remove barriers that prevent the Democratic Republic of the Congo from reaching its potential by empowering its young leaders through its Leadership Development Program in Kinshasa. Keeping a population alive and healthy to make systemic change is how we approached our “Nets for Nate” campaign. Children and youth collected nickels in net bags in order to purchase malaria nets ($10 each) through NetWorkers, which is a project of the PC(USA) International Health Ministries. Malaria nets will not cure the problems in the DRC; however, giving children and youth an opportunity to hear the gospel’s directive to heal the sick with a concrete way to keep children safe while they sleep has a positive outcome for everyone.
Diversity and tolerance are other educational buzz words, and it may be that neither one of them makes good sense for today’s world. Cultural exchange and acceptance more positively describe the action words for Christ’s call to his disciples then and now. Past generations saw many more missionaries on the ground in countries across the globe. Today it is possible to be a missionary right in one’s own land as people migrate and immigrate at an incredible rate. Buffalo, NY and Canada’s geographic proximity provides a stop for refugees to rest along the way. Last fall the congregation and outside organizations that use our facility had a “Rice for Life” collection. We collected 1,034 pounds of rice for VIVE, an agency that aids the refugee population. It was heartwarming, indeed, to watch folks bring rice in small and large bags and place them in the wheelbarrow in the reception room. Later that winter the youth went to VIVE to play with the children and visited the storeroom with bags of rice piled high. The connection between the rice in the wheelbarrow and the children it fed was the story that afternoon.
Buffalo has the distinction of being in the top three of the poorest large cities in the country. It has become a city that could easily replicate the United Nations in terms of diversity of culture, race and religion. Educating about cultural exchange beyond Sunday morning and the church walls has never been easier. During the last six years, our suburban church has had a covenantal relationship with a city church called Partners in Compassionate Service (P.I.C.S). Since 2005 church and community members travel 20 minutes every Wednesday afternoon to be cultural brokers. Volunteers from middle school students to retired adults tutor children from Somalia, the Sudan and Afghanistan. They have a snack, read books together and play board games. The cacophony of different languages mixed with shouts and laughter brings alive the story in Acts 2 in a way that is memory making. On those particular days, First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo is not about teaching the Word of God to refugee children, who may be Muslim. It is instead about imparting the love of God and the compassion of Christ with the presence of the Spirit.
Educators have a unique opportunity to plant the seeds of life-long learning and life-long serving in people of all ages. By embracing the stories of old with a new practice of service learning, we can empower learners of all ages and stages to be the hands and feet of Christ to a broken world, a transformational way of living and giving.
Linda Babcock began her journey at the Orchard Park Presbyterian Church in the Buffalo, NY, area, as a part-time educator, which then grew to fulltime. As the needs of the church changed, so did her responsibilities and title. Today she is the director of education and mission.