Youth Previously Nurtured Turn to Nurture a New Generation of Leaders

By Mieke Vandersall

Once upon a time, about 40 years ago, there was a community birthed out of New York City’s Hispanic Caucus called Acción Presbiteriana (Presbyterian Action). Several generations of young people were coming up in the church and their spirituality and leadership was nurtured through this community. Many of these individuals are now vibrant leaders in the PC(USA). Although it was not its stated goal, this community became a witness to the power of youth and young adult ministry.

Times have changed in 40 years. Generations of young people coming up still need guidance and community, but their needs are not the same as their parents who found their roots in Acción so many years ago.

With the guidance of the Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo, Pastor at la Iglesia Presbiteriana Nuevas Fronteras and United Presbyterian Church in Plainfield, NJ, Acción Presbiteriana is being revamped to meet those needs. “In conversations with parents and ministers in churches that are in survival mode, we have come together as a larger community to develop a platform that is more relevant to this generation of youth and emerging leaders,” says Aloyo. “We hear so many reports about how many youth are leaving the church, and we know that many emerging leaders are dissatisfied and disillusioned with the structure of the church that impedes growth and relationship building. So we are doing our part to walk alongside youth and young adults in providing creative and safe platforms for discernment and praxis.”

What does that look like? On Memorial Day weekend a 4-day, 3-night retreat will take place at Holmes Camp, entitled Jesus at the Center. The registration goal has already been exceeded, with 115 youth, young adults and adult accompaniers signed up. These individuals come from 17 congregations and at least 10 presbyteries in the Synod of the Northeast.

Other elements have also shifted. This is no longer a youth retreat, but for every four participants ages 10-17, there will be an adult present. Aloyo explains that “there needs to be an adult advisor for every four young participants so that they can hear the frustrations, concerns, hopes and challenges each young person brings.” It is also an opportunity for the adults to share their own life experiences. Having that intentional youth/adult interaction will allow for the adults present to be advocates of the youth in their congregations. Youth and young adult ministry isn’t simply giving a few hundred dollars to youth in the church budget. It is also walking alongside them in their spiritual journeys in the midst of overwhelming pressures both in society and indeed the church. One of the goals of this retreat is to create spaces where there is true intergenerational relationship building, where the young folks can ask questions about life decisions and create safe spaces where they won’t feel judged.

From one presbytery to many, from youth to intergenerational, this retreat will also be a multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial event.

Aloyo explains the shift to moving beyond being a solely Latin@ event:, “We also realized we needed to branch out—we had to broaden ourselves so that we can relate to each other no matter where we come from. We have broadened the scope of invitation and those providing leadership, with a focus on the next generation needing to be part of church that is bridging the gaps instead of creating them.”

Jesus at the Center is an evolution of a 40-year ministry, and the beginning of the next 40 years. The seminars will be taught mostly by Acción Presbiteriana alumni as their way to give back. “Once upon a time” has become now, and now will again one day become “once upon a time.” The topics for the seminars were chosen by the youth and young adults: Bullying and the Bible; Politics, Hatred and Hope; Relationship Building;  and We are All Immigrants: Understanding our Identity. Youth, young adults, and adults will worship and learn alongside each other, listening, exploring and creating lasting relationships. The Synod has provided $5,000 towards scholarships. If you would like to contribute, just follow this link.

In addition, the Emerging Leaders Forum, which will be a three-pronged innovative effort with young adults ages 18 to 35 and the Jesus at the Center Retreat, will form the foundation for the launch of the Covenant Architects Network in June 2017. This church-based organization will focus on social praxis in spirituality, leadership development, and ministry formation. The Emerging Leaders Forum will have a spiritual formation retreat in November, a Social Justice and Leadership Development event in April of 2018 and then they will engage by putting their learnings into action through a Missional Praxis event in the summer of 2018. “This has hopes to be a resource for and with congregations to explore different design towards sustainable ministry with, by and for youth and emerging ministries, within an urban context,” says Aloyo. The Synod is also pleased to have contributed $5,000 towards launching this initiative.