With a familiar Isaiah passage as a backdrop, PeaceGen 2011 youth participants and adult leaders gather for a photo in New York. Web-only photo courtesy of the Rev. Chris Pierson.
As a youth in the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference, Lonnie Chafin participated in a United Nations seminar, sponsored by United Methodist Women. He was so impressed with what he learned that he decided to become a mission intern after college.
“It was the first time I evaluated foreign affairs from God’s view,” said Chafin, now treasurer for the Northern Illinois Conference. The opportunity — for teens to see firsthand how the church approaches peacemaking through contemporary issues — had such an impact that when Chafin moved to Chicago, he introduced the concept to his new conference.
For the past nine years, he and the Rev. Christopher Pierson, connectional ministries director for Northern Illinois, have led high school students on a mission to New York City to learn how to become a generation of peacemakers in the midst of violence. They call the trips “Plumbline Tours,” based on Amos 7:8.
In October, 27 youth and five leaders from the conference went to New York for a four-day Plumbline event they dubbed “PeaceGen 2011.” Thanks to generous contributions to the annual Peace with Justice Sunday offering, conference scholarships “made it possible for six kids to participate who otherwise couldn’t afford to do so,” Chafin said.
To encourage the youth to meet teens outside their home congregations, leaders assigned each participant to a “family” or small group. “As is so often the case in life,” the Rev. Michael Mann explained, “you don’t choose the family, the family chooses you.” Mann is associate director of mission and advocacy for the conference.
First on the group’s New York itinerary was ground zero. “We stopped at the site to talk about that day, including the response of churches in the area,” Mann said.
Their next stop was the Financial District, amid Occupy Wall Street protests. The youth met three high school teachers, including one who said, “I would see protesters, and I thought they were a little weird, but this is the first protest I've been to or participated in.”
She was motivated, she told the teens, when she learned “that the top 400 richest families in the United States have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.” As her school struggles for funding and basic services are slashed, she said, the disparity doesn’t make sense.
Against the New York City skyline, the Rev. Alka Lyall, pastor of Bethany of Fox Valley United Methodist Church in Illinois, poses with her PeaceGen 2011 “family.” Web-only photo courtesy of the Rev. Alka Lyall.
At the Interchurch Center — home to the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries — the group heard about the Global Health Initiative, The Advance and other ways to support mission. They got a glimpse of young adult mission opportunities like the US-2, Mission Intern and Global Justice Volunteer programs.
After touring the United Nations, the youth discussed how to create peace through their churches and schools and in the world.
The Rev. Alka Lyall serves Bethany of Fox Valley United Methodist Church in Aurora, Ill. She coordinated daily worship services for the group.
“I tried my best to include Scripture related to peace and statements that leaders of our world have made on peace,” she said. “I gave them each a little rock on the first day — after a short reflection on Jesus' words that if the disciples would be quiet, then the rocks will cry out.” Lyall invited participants to carry the rocks with them “as reminders to us — the disciples of this day — that we are called to be voices of peace and justice in this world.”
On the second day, she showed the group a “peace bowl” she created from plastic toy soldiers.
“I talked about how we are inundated with messages of hate, war, pain, hurt and unrest ... but we can always make an effort toward bringing peace, respect and understanding to those situations.” Lyall invited participants to write prayers and put them in the bowl.
Hannah Derksen of Grace United Methodist Church, Dixon, Ill., said the experience “changed the way I look at people and the world around me. And, yes, I learned that even as a youth, you can still change the world and make a difference.”
In a Facebook message to her fellow participants, the ninth-grader wrote, “Thank you everyone for letting me be a part of a great group of people and an awesome experience. … I hope even though our trip is done, we can continue to use this page to share our ideas and talk about peace together.”
The best part of every trip, Mann acknowledged, “is seeing the lives of kids being changed.” He recalled a young man, Jaquay Wilkerson, who participated in 2010.
Wilkerson was so excited about his experience that he created a rap to describe it. Now a student at Triton College in River Grove, Ill., he is emerging as a leader.
Wilkerson said last year’s experience opened his eyes “to see that life is so much more than material things. In the United States, we take so much for granted and sometimes lose focus on the real meaning of life.
“It's our job as followers of Christ to take the initiative and stand against injustice,” he continued. “Sometimes, we have to put our wants and ‘needs’ on hold in order to serve others with justice. Not only do I need to take the initiative, but I (also) need to be the initiative.”
At ground zero, the Rev. Chris Pierson explains the events of 9/11 to PeaceGen 2011 teens, who were very young in 2001. Web-only photo courtesy of the Rev. Alka Lyall.
Mann stressed the importance of introducing teens to the world outside their familiar, comfortable surroundings.
“Youth are the church of today,” he said. “This is one way we involve them in the life of the church beyond the local church.
“It connects youth to the church next door and to conference leaders who can shepherd them to greater opportunities in their annual conference and throughout the connection.”
“It’s been a remarkably powerful experience,” Chafin said. Something as simple as joining in a fair-trade coffee hour motivates the teens “to build ways to articulate their faith.”
The trip also opens doors to vocational possibilities.
“I know of four (former participants) who have gone on to seminary,” Chafin said. “One participant, who before the tour had no idea what an NGO was, went into non-governmental organization work. Two are involved in foreign policy.
“The tour gives them a vision.”
United Methodist churches may celebrate Peace with Justice Sunday at any time. Half of the offering supports peace with justice ministries around the world, and half stays in the annual conference for opportunities like PeaceGen 2011.
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.