Middle School 'Squad' gets Civic

From June 26 to June 30, fifteen middle schoolers and four youth ministers from four East Bay Episcopal churches (All Souls, Berkeley; Christ Church, Alameda; St. Stephen’s, Orinda; St. Timothy’s, Danville) participated in a weeklong service trip called the Middle School Immersion Trip. Through service projects and formational activities, our task for the week was to engage the question: “What is the civic responsibility of a Christian in the USA in 2017?”

The year’s theme: Citizens of the World[/Heaven] was, for a second year, thoroughly soaked in the skills and tenets of community organizing. The whole of Monday morning was spent in formation, discussing citizenship and community organizing, learning how self-interest and community-interest relate and interact, and an abbreviated mock-up of the 5 Steps to Community Organizing. In the afternoon, we role-played a scenario of twin cities — LeftTown and RightTown, with identical demographics and opposite cultures, plagued by an Airborne Toxic Event and forced to resettle — to put our organizing and civic thinking into practice.

The rest of the week took us on daylong trips throughout the whole Bay Area. On Tuesday, we worked in the food bank at Monument Crisis Center in Concord and talking about the dignity of the individual (cf. Saul Alinsky and the Baptismal Covenant).

On Wednesday, we worked with an organization called At Home Humanitarian and hosted an outing for about 25 recently resettled immigrant and refugee families. Many of the families we spent the day with only spoke Arabic and some of them arrived to the USA within only the previous week or two, and At-Home Humanitarian’s mission is to social integrate refugees into their new communities. So, truly, our task for the day was to just hang out with these folks and to give them a normal day in the park, and hang out we did. We took a lap at the petting zoo at Little Farm in Tilden, we learned to play cricket, and we catered a big picnic for about 45 of us. It was an incredible day, and something really landed for me at one moment during the picnic. I looked over and saw some of our youth learning how to play cricket from a 7-year-old, and on the other side, one of our youth was getting tackled around the legs by one of the 5-year-olds. And I couldn’t help but acknowledge that there is something so instinctive about being with people, and playing with other kids, even if they are from halfway around the world and you can’t actually talk to them. I was a proud youth minister that day.

On Thursday, we visited Grace Cathedral and heard from California Interfaith Power & Light and about environmental stewardship, and we asked the question: what is humanity’s responsibility to care for the world while it holds dominion over it? We even snagged a tour of the cathedral that took us up onto the catwalks and onto the roof! It really threw us for a loop, being 12 stories up and out in the open air of the bell tower (and hearing it ring for the 3 p.m. hour from 5 feet away).

For the closing Eucharist, the youth were asked to write citizenship statements, naming a particular focus issue they care about, why it matters to them, and a concrete action they can commit to to address it, and sharing the statements in front of their parents and their peers new friends. I’m still radiant with pride for the hard work these young people put in this week, still in a little shock how easily they took to some radical Alinsky lines, and really grateful for the work of my own fellow youth ministers in making a week like this happen.

In summation, I find myself still thinking about our Community Organizing principle for Thursday: “If people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, then they do not think about it.” The world’s got a lot of large and seemingly intractable problems, but if we can get fifteen squirrelly pre-teens from Berkeley to Nob Hill and back on public transportation, what else could possibly thwart us? Amen.

For more photos, visit The God Squad Facebook page or #MSIT2017 on Instagram.