Written by Connie Larkman
Setting out to show that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, four busloads of youth and their leaders from the six United Church of Christ New England-area Conferences soon will be en route to the denomination's National Youth Event 2012 in West Lafayette, Ind.
Two of the busloads –– a group of more than 100 –– will hit the road earlier than the other two in order to stop in Cleveland July 7-9 to participate in hunger-related service project at three sites.
"If each church was trying to find transportation to NYE – or even each Conference – on its own, it would have been more expensive and more challenging than if we pool our resources," said Debby Kirk, trip coordinator from the Connecticut Conference.
"We made a strong collaborative connection two years ago at the New England Regional Youth Event in Boston, and we are building on that," said Kirk, a 30-plus-year member of First Congregational UCC in Woodstock, Conn.
Massachusetts and Connecticut, as the largest Conferences, took the lead in planning, said Kirk. But the Rhode Island Conference, from the smallest state, is sending a group of 78 –– one-third of the total number. Other Conferences in the New England mix are Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
The young people taking part in the service projects in Cleveland will tie their experience into the New England group's theme of "Imagine a World Without Hunger," said Kirk, who directs a combined program serving the youth ministries of both her church and East Woodstock Congregational UCC.
The service-project group will work with the Cleveland FoodBank, the Case Western Reserve University urban farm and the Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program (REAP), which operates the urban Ohio City Farm.
"It's something that's pretty exciting," said Kirk. "All six Conferences are working together to make this happen," said Kirk.
Helping Kirk make it all "happen" on the NYE New England planning team have been the Rev. Bill Walsh (Connecticut); the Rev. Jennie Valentine (New Hampshire); the Rev. Ryan Gackenheimer (Vermont); Megan Weymouth (Rhode Island); the Rev. Da Vita McCallister (Connecticut); the Rev. Kate Dalton (Maine); and the Rev. Kelly Thibeault (Massachusetts).
"This is the largest group [from New Hampshire] to participate in anything out of the state in recent memory," said Valentine, associate pastor at First Congregational UCC in Manchester, N.H. "That's when I knew something was happening. And then when the buses sold out and I still had people asking if they could join the trip, it was further proof."
Valentine said she is energized to see youth hungry for the opportunity to connect and form community outside of their regular circles.
"The fact that they are willing to get on a bus and travel 1,000+ miles to attend the event is a testament to their bold faith that the Church has something to offer them," added Valentine. "Participating in NYE will show them that they can lead the church forward and bring the faith through the 21st century strong, dynamic and energetic."