From Seed to Plant: Young Adult Volunteers Working for Food Justice

By Mieke Vandersall

Sometimes we plant a little seed and hope enough water and tender loving care is enough for it to grow into a full-fledged, fruit-bearing plant. 

In 2008, a group of Presbyterians in the Presbyteries of Boston, Northern and Southern New England were interested in exploring further work in campus ministry; they wanted to see what opportunities might be hiding. Through a grant from the New England Presbytery Partnership Group, they hired Kelsey Rice-Bogdan, who was studying at Harvard Divinity School, to help them think through this question. The result was a detailed report on the state of campus ministries with which Presbyterians in New England were engaged, from the traditional United Ministries in Higher Education structures to congregational involvement in parachurch ministries like Intervarsity. This report and the actions that came out of it created a climate within Boston Presbytery in particular to take action around young adult ministry. 

That was the seed. 

Conversations began to get watered in the Presbytery of Boston that crossed traditional theological divides. People wanted to move forward in mission, joining hands to work for the healing of God’s world in ways that made a concrete difference. With the report in mind, an informal network of people in the Presbytery of Boston from areas such as campus ministry, Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) alumni, people with a background in young adult ministry and people passionate about food justice began to ask this question: “What if we worked together, bridging secular community organizing work and religious social justice work, to bring Young Adult Volunteers to Boston? Can we do it? Can we believe that God has given us enough resources in ourselves to make this happen—and that the money will follow?” That was in 2010. 

The seed was getting watered, but nothing had yet sprouted. 

A passion which crossed theological boundaries was food justice. The community was interested in creating a place to help provide access to all for sustainable, environmentally healthy food. No other YAV program had food justice as a common theme, so perhaps this was another need they could fill. 

As it goes, they couldn’t do this themselves. They began asking more questions, like: “Who do we need to work with? Who is already doing this work that we can support? How can we be drawn out into the world through mission, rather than waiting for mission to come to us? Who has answers to questions that we don’t have, that we need to work with?” 

Out of these conversations the model for the YAV site became clear: the Young Adult Volunteers would work part-time in a congregation and part-time in a local non-profit, creating the bridge between these two worlds, and drawing congregations out from the walls of their church buildings into greater engagement with the needs in their communities. 

The seeds were sprouting. 

By 2013 the program had formed a Board, hired a Site Coordinator, secured four church/food justice partner worksites and was interviewing prospective YAVs. The program’s first class was welcomed in late August 2013. 

Since then ten YAVs have worked with seven different churches and twelve different community agencies involved in food justice. Four YAVs are signed up to begin working this September.

The seeds have grown into plants. 

One Partnership: First Presbyterian Church in Brookline and Women and Girls Thriving in Brookline

First Presbyterian Church in Brookline is a small congregation. They have 44 members. The size of this congregation, however, is not a deterrent to dreaming and acting big. They were interested in hosting a YAV, but knew they needed to establish a relationship with a local non-profit in order to do so. Their pastor, the Rev. Alison Moore, heard of a community impact initiative that she joined, which is where she learned about Women and Girls Thriving in Brookline. Through this introduction, the YAV position between First, Brookline and Women and Girls Thriving in Brookline was built and the YAV does the work in growing this partnership.   

The congregation has hosted “Listen and Learn” dinners where low income women and local non-profit leaders could grow together, share their wisdom, and seek new ways of addressing common concerns “around the table.” Meals are D.I.S.H.: Delicious, Inexpensive, Sustainable and Healthy. The building where First, Brookline meets is owned by the Korean Church in Boston and as KCB learned more about the dinners, they wanted to work with First, Brookline. For one of the meals they made a Korean dinner. 

In addition, First, Brookline applied for a grant from the Brookline Community Foundation to begin a community garden that women in the community could come to and grow food. But the garden beds in the space granted needed repair.  So, Rev. Moore put a request out through the presbytery asking for someone to help out. Two men came from a congregation far away from theirs to make the beds. Relationships were forming and the Brookline community was witnessing the connectionalism of Presbyterians in action. 

The flowers were blooming. 

Since the beginning of the YAV program, there have been 10 YAVs who have built partnerships in Boston. The YAVs have gone on to live their faith in a variety of ways, from attending seminary to working for Americorps, to being a children's advocate at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, to enrolling in nursing school, to working at the Women's Lunch Place in Boston, to name a few. 

The flowers are beginning to bear fruit. 


How has this program been supported? 

This program couldn’t come to flower without the support of the larger church and community. From the initial grant from the Synod’s Presbyterian Partnership Group, to the Presbyterian Hunger Program, to the General Assembly subsidizing YAV stipends, to the most recent grant of $15,000 as a Synod Innovation Grant, which will assist the YAVs with expensive Boston housing and to provide a Chaplain to partner with the YAVs and the Site Coordinator, to contributions by the congregations and non-profits, everyone has come together to create a meaningful program.

While the project has been successful, they are still in need of support. Your prayers are encouraged. In addition, getting the word out about the program is a continued need. Please encourage young adults to consider the program. 

In addition, the program is building its individual giving programs to create a sustainable program. You can consider a financial gift. Consider helping this program to flower abundantly!