It was billed as business meeting, a weekend training and immersion experience for nine members of the UCC’s Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). A group of young people between 13 and 30 learning to lead by example, gathering at Centro Romero to prepare for General Synod 29.
But there's something about the UCC's Centers for Education and Social Transformation.
After three days together at Centro Romero, Sept. 20-23, the business meeting for the youth and young adult representatives became a bonding experience, according to CYYAM Co-Chair Jake Joseph, around leadership and advocacy development in the United Church of Christ.
“All of the council members bonded as a national group. A lot of us love the UCC justice way of [spreading] the gospel message, understanding our calling for justice in our lives,” said Joseph, a Member in Discernment (for ministry) from Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colo. “We feel grounded in our experience together, and want to talk about what we’ve done, seen and experienced when we take our messages to the local churches. We have grown up in the church, seen what’s wonderful about it.”
These young people now have a lot more to talk about after their time together in California. The CYYAM council members, in addition to planning representation for Youth and Young Adults at Synod, wanted to focus part of their meeting on the UCC’s Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexuality training and take a look at life on the San Ysidro/Tijuana border.
Carlos Correa, director of Centro Romero, arranged what the young people described as a pretty intense experience. He took the group into Mexico and helped us immerse them into communities with persons living with HIV/AIDS, those survived sexual violence and others caught up in sex trafficking.
Nevan Strobelt-Mccann described the “presence of prostitution. For three straight blocks, the sidewalk was just lined with young women just waiting for someone to come along and just say, ‘I want you.’ It was just unbelievable how the women were being forced to sell their bodies like any other piece of merchandise. But they weren't just another piece of merchandise, they were human beings,” said the 17-year-old high school senior from Akron, Ohio who attends Archwood UCC in Cleveland. “One can read about such public issues, but it is not even close to being real until you have seen it with your own eyes.”
Joseph initially didn’t have the words to express his feelings about what happened during their time together.
“The border experience is not something that I can put into words,” he said. “It makes you want to drop everything and dedicate your life to the cause. I suppose that is a part of our calling. We followed the itinerary, but we are had our own journey inside ourselves to search out a new way of seeing our place in the world. I have no words even today.”
Rachel Kirk, who grew up in the United Church of Gainesville, Fla., said she was moved by the people she met and was able to communicate with in her very limited Spanish. “It was incredibly empowering for me to be able to speak and be understood,” said Kirk. “Despite the inhumanity and inequality we witnessed and discussed, this gave me hope that my education, as immense a privilege as it is, can give me the ability to connect with people whose lives are radically different from mine.”
Kirk, a 20-year-old Grinnell (Iowa) College student, also appreciated the discussion around sexuality. “What was most valuable about the OWL training for me was the values assessment,” she said, “where as a group we discussed our opinions on various issues concerning sexuality and relationships. While we definitely disagreed on things, our opinions even on opposite sides of an issue were based on shared values and a commitment to living our lives in accordance with them.”
“[OWL trainer] Ann Hanson is like a UCC saint to the youth and young adults,” Joseph added. “We could have used another week of conversations and exchanging of ideas like we did in those 12 hours with Ann. OWL is so valuable and is, in my opinion, the essence of what we should be doing as the UCC and as church. It is advocacy where the public sphere has failed because of fear, it is embodiment, teaches true welcome and inclusion from the youngest age. It is the essence of why I was drawn to the UCC at 15 years old and am attending seminary for the UCC now.”
Joseph, at 24, has deep connection to the church and to CYYAM that is hard to miss. “I am passionate about CYYAM because it is not just a random set of youths and young adults who travel and plan events for Synod and NYE and bother the conferences every two years about delegate counts. CYYAM is actually a state of being,” he said. “It is a state of movement, of optimism, and of the future of our tapestry UCC religious tradition that we all love so much. CYYAM's official membership is everyone between 13 and 30, and we know that we who sit on the council work to represent them and to expand experiences like OWL and the Border Experience.”
Strobelt-Mccann summed it up this way: “Now that I have experienced what I have experienced, I carry around a responsibility to fight for what I know is right. I can no longer sit on the side acting as if poverty, HIV, AIDs, or sex trafficking does not exist. If the world is ever going to fix these problems, I suggest that we start tearing down was that separate us from each other.
Kirk agrees action is important. “I've stayed involved because it's been an incredible experience on every level,” she said. “I've been able to travel to UCC ministries around the country, I've talked to conference staff about their work and goals for youth and young adult ministry, and I've learned about some of the diversity of this denomination through the experiences of my peers.”
CYYAM representatives are elected or appointed every Synod, and serve for two years. In Long Beach, Calif., at General Synod 29, this group plans to share ideas for voting, has talked about possible resolutions and may even present a plan for advocating a 20 percent delegate count of Youth and Young Adults from every conference.
“My fellow CYYAM members are like my ministers, what I experience with them is like gospel,” Joseph said. “My most essential form of church is CYYAM, having real experiences of justice and liberation. Just being with them, as a community dedicated to larger UCC community, is truly church to me.”
Kirk echoed those sentiments. “This weekend reminded me of what a privilege it is to work alongside such incredible youth and young adults who are passionate about changing the world for the better, and who recognize the potential of the church as a vehicle to make that change.”