September 10, 2020

Youth Ministry Pandemic Style

Who could have imagined the upheavals 2020 has brought upon us? Along with every other institution, churches have been turned upside-down. In many cases necessity has been the mother of invention, as with the explosion of online worship. In other parts of our common life, such as youth ministry, it’s been tempting to throw up our hands and wait for a better time.

We’d like to share two experiences of adapting to the pandemic, with the hope that they’ll open up some possibilities in your setting. The first arose from young people and their youth leader responding to needs in the community and making an impact. The second explores the question of how a youth group can safely gather in person again. We’ll begin by describing the unique setting in which these experiences took place.

Youth People Serving the Community
St. Elizabeth’s is an Episcopal mission on the Ute Reservation in northeast Utah. Along with our Sunday worship we’re known for reaching out to the young people of the community. For the past thirteen years our Art Empowers program has offered after-school and summer activities focused on verbal and artistic self-expression, mentoring by supportive adults and healthy living practices, such as shared meals and physical exercise. The program leaders and participants, as well as the church’s Bishop’s Committee (governing board), are all Native people.

With strong support from tribal and church elders, Art Empowers has been growing steadily. In the first week of this year’s Spring Series attendance passed fifty kids and teens for the first time. Then the local schools shut down for weeks that turned into months, and our programs did as well. At first the young people reveled in movies and social media and sleeping late, but for some of them that began to get old.

Because of the close relationships we’ve formed over the years with the Art Empowers families, Youth Leader Becca Gardner was quick to recognize a problem which arose. Many kids and teens depended on having lunch at school, but during the pandemic the meals were only available at the school building ten miles away. The families were delighted when Becca and her three nieces (all high school students) offered to provide lunches for them.

What started out as 25-30 meals a day quickly grew to over 70, as they discovered brothers and sisters, grandmothers and aunties in the households. And when the Bishop’s Committee met (by conference call) a couple of weeks later, it was no surprise that preparing that many lunches three times a week was expensive. An article describing the Lunch Makers’ project in our newsletter didn’t ask for money, but church members, a local business and friends of St. Elizabeth’s across the country made generous donations. Not only did this outpouring meet all of our expenses, but the young people felt strongly supported in their ministry. “We love helping our community and people as much as we can,” one of them said. “We all appreciate your donations,” said another, “especially because we get to continue what we love doing.” Making and delivering more than 1500 lunches (and counting) to local families has been their response to the pandemic.

Social Distance Summer Camp
The Art Empowers Summer Camp has always been a highlight for local young people, but gathering with dozens of kids as young as six wasn’t possible this year. As our leaders thought and prayed about this, we wondered if a group of eight teens and two adults could meet safely and have fun together. We thought it might be a good learning experience for teenagers to adapt to wearing masks, washing their hands frequently and maintaining social distance.

While our programs ordinarily welcome siblings, cousins and neighbors, we decided that to manage the number and ages of participants this camp needed to be by invitation only. We planned two week-long sessions and invited every teen who’d been at Art Empowers during the past year. A core group attended while others chose not to come due to discomfort with gathering, family camping trips, sleeping too late and other reasons.

The motto of the camp was simple: “Be Safe and Have Fun!” Our assumption was that those two goals could coexist, which seems to have been the case. All the reports from campers have been positive, and they displayed their creations proudly. Wearing masks all day was a challenge, but Becca said it got better after the first day. “The youth showed patience and maturity,” she said, “in wearing their masks and waiting for the tables to be wiped down (again).” Those sound like valuable learnings for young people.

Here are some practical suggestions from our social distance camp experiences:

• The space should be arranged differently. With eight campers in our parish hall instead of us the usual thirty, we spread out five round tables with two seats at each. (Members of the same household can sit close together.) Plastic or metal chairs are easier to wipe down than fabric-covered ones.
• Adults or other youth helping campers with crafts need to maintain social distance. This can promote more independence, but it’s also good to keep in mind while planning projects.
• Clean before, during and after camp sessions. Clorox wipes were used multiple times each day; diluted bleach in a spray bottle with paper towels also works.
• Games were tricky, because the youth didn’t want to wear gloves while playing ball. Indoor games they could play from their seats were popular, especially with team competition, as was an outdoor scavenger hunt.
• Prepare the food in advance, because meal time can be hectic with all that extra wiping. We made extra-nice sack lunches the campers could take outside.
• Providing transportation is normally a central element in our programs, but we couldn’t see a way to do it while maintaining social distance.

Was it worth the effort and expense of doing the camp? Because of the small size of the group size economies of scale were poor, but the youth were all glad they came. They had lots of fun and seemed to learn important lessons about self-care. When schools begin again in person, we hope these youth will not only have a head start in adapting to masks and social distance requirements, but they’ll be models for their classmates. Won’t it be interesting to see how things develop in the coming year?