Congregational collaboration: the Middle School Immersion Trip

Youth from five East Bay churches came together last week for a weeklong, local, stay-cation service and formation experience: the Middle School Immersion Trip. Rising 7th – 9th graders from Christ Church, Alameda; All Souls, Berkeley; St. Stephen’s, Orinda; Resurrection, Pleasant Hill; and St. Timothy’s, Danville camped out in Berkeley on the floor of the All Souls parish house and spent the days engaging service projects and other formation opportunities in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. And it was awesome.

The theme for the week was “Welcoming The Stranger” (à la Matthew 25:31-46), and so focused on the experiences of different marginalized groups. Our unofficial tagline for the week was “Make strangers neighbors again” and so we reflected on how our actions and words and choices invite folks into the relationship of ‘neighbor’ rather than ‘stranger’ or vice-versa.

Kicking off our first day — and contextualizing our week’s engagement with the theme was the theory and practice of community organizing. How do we discern our self-interest vs. our community-interest? And once we pin our community-interest, how do we build a team, and plan and do action around that interest? We spent the afternoon role-playing as citizens and leaders in the community of Townsville, trying to work out what to do with an empty city lot.

With that bit of theory and practice in our pocket, we found a lot of places to deepen our learning and reflection during the week. We talked about the experiences of the sick and chronically ill and visited the children’s hospital in Oakland. We canvassed the neighborhood and dropped off donations at YEAH! in Berkeley, and talked about homelessness and housing access for youth and young adults. We paid a visit to the Castro in San Francisco and went on a guided tour of LGBTQ history with the Companions of St. Dorothy the Worker, then headed to Dolores Park for discussion of gun violence, Orlando, and sanctuary (plus some kickball, of course). And we talked another type of sanctuary — and community empowerment and development — at Youth Spirit Artworks, an interfaith “green” art jobs and job training program in Berkeley where we painted a labyrinth.

In the evenings, we rotated through small groups — learning different spiritual practices (icon writing, the Ignatian Examen, etc.), engaging different discussions about the days’ projects, and working through writing elevator pitches for our social justice interests. And of course there were smores and Commando Church and sardines and playground time and other antics.

The week was really amazing, and so much the better for having shared the experience among five churches. Split the planning process and leadership among five youth ministers, invite the youth into friendship with four other towns/churches’ worth of peers they would never have otherwise met, and you’ve got a recipe for a special and holy time. Amen, alleluia, alleluia. 

And so I’ll leave you with my biggest takeway from this week: what’s the difference between a stranger and a neighbor? You just haven’t met the stranger yet.

If you want to know more, check out the St. Stephen’s, Orinda Facebook page for a well-documented chronology of all our activities. For more on the tour of the Castro, read Br. Karekin Yarian’s article on the topics discussed.