“Tina, why do you believe in God?”
We were driving in a rented 12-passenger van, tired, sweaty, sun-baked, and dusty after a week in the desert on pilgrimage. Our last showers had been days before, and we were in various states of stickiness from the shaved ice we’d savored in relief after climbing out of the Canyon de Chelly. After a week together amid near constant challenges, defenses were down and trust was high. These are the moments, the relational thin spaces that those of us who work with youth strive for, when the big conversations tend to take place. I’d known the youth asking the question since she was a preschooler; had watched her grow into a delightfully irreverent but deeply caring young woman. Her query was sincere, asked not just in curiosity, and not in challenge, but from a deep yearning to remember the trusting faith of childhood. A transformative conversation took us all the way to our stop that night.
Summer in youth ministry is filled with opportunities that arise with the relaxation of schedules and routines. At this point just after the solstice, our kids just spent a week in connection and service to a community outside our state. This is a ministry that was developed by a cohort of youth ministers in our area when none of us had the resources or wherewithal to develop these kinds of experiences on our own. We soon discovered the power and beauty of combining in this ministry. Kids from several parishes look forward to coming together every year, packing for hours into cars and vans, sleeping on camp pads in gyms and Sunday school classrooms, working, usually without air conditioning, in food banks and shelters and anywhere else where their energy and easy physicality are welcomed and useful. They have a heart for disaster relief, and proudly show off their bug bites and bruises after a week of laboring in service to others. They also spend hours during the week laughing and playing together; building and rebuilding friendships that survive, thanks to social media, for the rest of the year. Even, recently, over two years’ of pandemic and separation.
Other ways we keep our youth connected over the summer are much simpler: an evening at the local amusement park, driving go-karts, and crossing a variety of challenges on a high ropes course. Budgets are tight for us as for everyone; we asked parents to pay, if they were able, and used scholarship funds to help as needed. Next month, we will invite the kids to our grounds for pizza, ice cream, and games, and at some point, we will send out a social media and text invitation to meet at the movies; popcorn is on us for whoever wants to show up. Connecting youth doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive; all they really need is time and space to be together, and adults who not only tolerate but enjoy the endless energy and inevitable noise of a herd of teens and preteens.
Summer ministry to children and families can be similarly simple and equally important for building fellowship for all ages. A simple invitation to gather at a nearby park, BYOPicnic on a summer evening; keeping the nursery open for an extra hour while parents enjoy brunch; a meetup at a local museum or an easy intergenerational hike. These are all exceptional ways to bring families together in locations where there are at least as many adults as children, where older children can naturally serve as helpers and role models to younger children; all serving so adults might finish sentences and revel in completed conversations. Particularly this summer, after a long season of extreme pandemic parenting, what our youth, children, and families need more than anything is simply time and space to reconnect.
Diocesan camps are another important opportunity to bring children and youth together, and a chance of respite for parents. We strongly promote camp registration and help families connect with camp staff to answer questions and find financial assistance. When several kids from the same parish all go to camp together, they are supported in fighting anxiety and homesickness by those church friendships even while they experience the critical childhood rites of separation, unfamiliar food, and a variety of new challenges.
We will end the summer with the Blessing of the Backpacks in August, just before we begin another year of formation and resettle into the routines of the program year. There will be families there we haven’t seen since May, and we’ll be delighted to welcome them back. But for the youth, children, and parents who’ve been able to connect over the summer, it will be like coming home to the safety of friends and family.