"Make it a week long next year, instead of just three days!" said C.J. Burns of Fellowship United Church of Christ in Chesapeake, Virginia. Phyllis Horton, C.J.'s pastor at Fellowship UCC, chimed in "I agree. We're planning to bring a whole busload of young people next year!"
The sentiments of Burns and Horton were echoed by others who recently participated in Church Youth Empowerment Weekend 2011 (CYEW 2011) at Catawba College. July 15-17, more than 70 youth and leaders from 20 different churches (representing 12 different denominations and 3 non-denominational churches) attended this inaugural Christian leadership conference for high school youth. The theme of the three-day event, which was coordinated by the college's Lilly Center for Vocation and Values, was "Answering the Call to Learn, Love, and Lead."
The high-impact program featured insightful presentations, hands-on community service projects, live music, group discussions, recreation, and more. Through these activities and interaction with their peers, participating youth explored the concept of faith-in-action and how their individual talents and abilities can be put to use right now in sharing the love of Christ and serving others.
When asked to share his thoughts about CYEW 2011, Adam Broyles, a rising 11th grader from Friendship Baptist Church in Salisbury, had this to say: "Amazing! This event has been a great encouragement to me! The only thing I would change would be to make it last a week or two, or even a month. Seriously — please make it longer. It was a true blessing."
Jesse Moore, a member of Centenary United Methodist Church in Mount Ulla and a rising 10th grader, went one step further and exclaimed, "The weekend was beyond amazing! I was touched in more ways than one by the music, service work, and programs. Every aspect of the camp was great, except for one thing — it ended way too fast. I have a feeling that this will be an annual event for me."
Both of these young men volunteered to participate as leaders in the closing worship service held on the last day of the event. Adam sang and played the guitar, while sharing a song he had written himself. During the sermon portion of the service, Jesse spoke sincerely and confidently to the group about the personal challenges he has faced in his own faith journey.
A central character in the programs and breakout sessions during the weekend was the Disciple, Peter -often considered Jesus' "right hand man." In spite of his closeness to Jesus, Peter struggled mightily and sometimes failed miserably. Still, Jesus depended on Peter to be a pillar of the Christian church. Program content for CYEW 2011 focused on the parallels between Peter's struggles and those we face in life today. Participating youth were reminded of God's desire to use us for good in spite of our problems and imperfections. Various members of the CYEW 2011 Leadership Team — comprised predominantly of Catawba College students and recent graduates — shared personal stories that connected with the story of Peter and resonated with participants.
In an effort to promote the concept of faith in action, the second day of CYEW 2011 was devoted to serving others. All youth participants and leaders engaged in hands-on community service projects, which included assisting Habitat for Humanity of Rowan with the construction of two new homes, stocking the shelves of the food pantry at Rowan Helping Ministries, and engaging in landscaping at RHM's Eagle's Nest transitional living apartments. In a practical application of their faith, young people and their leaders enthusiastically hammered nails, framed walls, hung vinyl siding, hauled appliances, trimmed hedges, cleaned gutters, pulled weeds, dug flower beds, and stocked shelves. What's more — they had a great time doing it!
Kelsey Samples, a rising twelfth grader from Cornerstone Church in Salisbury, spent the day working in the pantry at Rowan Helping Ministries and doing yard work at the Eagle's Nest Apartments. She said, "Working at Rowan Helping Ministries can really change a person. Though it broke my heart to see people in need of shelter and food, volunteering to help made me feel like a better person. I feel like I can do my part to improve the world, and that's a fantastic feeling!"
A definite strength of the event was the diversity of those in attendance — not only denominationally — but racially, culturally, and socio-economically. This fact was not lost on participating youth. When asked what he liked most about the event, Terrell Britt, a rising 11th grader from Fellowship UCC, stated, "I liked the fact that all different types of people came." CYEW leaders made a concerted effort to mirror this diversity by utilizing various worship styles and types of music during the event. This was evidenced in the closing worship service, which was planned and led by youth participants. At one point during the service, several youth carried posters to the front, on which they had listed different denominations, beliefs, races, cultures, socio-economic groups, physical features and other characteristics that tend to separate us from each other. After standing with their posters to form the shape of the cross, they flipped them over. Together, they now read, "Children of God. Body of Christ. We are all the same."
Organizers hope that those who participated in this first-time event left the Catawba campus empowered to make a difference in the world. Feedback from youth and their adult leaders would seem to indicate that this is already occurring.
Cynthia and Suzanne Goodson expressed appreciation for the diversity of the programming and its impact upon the youth with whom they work. Both are youth leaders with St. Matthews Episcopal Church is Salisbury. Through a unique cross-cultural partnership, they also work with youth from two other congregations — Good Shepherd and San Mateo. Young people from all three of these churches attended CYEW 2011. In expressing her appreciation to the CYEW leadership team, Cynthia said, "We thank you for all you have done to help the youth of our churches! They can name every team member or speaker who impacted their lives through this event. They are already planning a follow-up community service project."
Meghan Shapley, a rising 10th grader from High Rock Community Church in Kannapolis, said "I think going to Catawba College and taking part in Church Youth Empowerment Weekend was one of the best things I've done for myself in years. At the end of the weekend, we were asked to share our comments on blank note cards. One note card was not enough for me to describe the great memories I have taken from this event!"
Rufus Hobson, a youth leader with Word of Life Family Worship Center in Salisbury stated, "We would like thank the leadership team and Catawba College for hosting such a wonderful event! Words cannot express how much impact each project, session, and lesson had on our youth and the adult leaders present. We are looking forward to coming back next year."
CYEW 2011 is but one of many initiatives of the Lilly Center that are aimed at helping students find a sense of purpose and fulfillment in life. The Center was born from the awareness that society today often falsely measures success and happiness based solely upon the acquisition of wealth and status. By providing opportunities for students to explore the employment of their unique gifts and talents in service to others, the Lilly Center hopes to open the door to a more meaningful life and future.
PHOTOS: CYEW 2011
High School Youth Encouraged to Register Now for Catawba's Church Youth Empowerment Weekend
Church Youth Empowerment Weekend (CYEW)
The Lilly Center