By Brett Hetherington*
Building a connection point to the community your church is a part of can often be a daunting task. The default setting for many is to invite people to come into the church building. But the leadership of Crossroads United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District) has found a different way to engage the children and families that are mere blocks from their building.
“King Park Summer Kids Program is kind of a summer-long VBS,” is how Ashley Monteleone described this outreach ministry. “We come out to the park here for an hour or so, spend some time playing games and doing some activities with kids from the neighborhood, and sharing a Bible story with them.”
“All of the arts and crafts, games or even skits that we might use all go along with the story for that day,” emphasized counselor Tony Galati.
Monteleone is a schoolteacher who is available during the summer, which made her a natural fit to serve as the director of this ministry. She attends Church of the Lakes UMC which traditionally hosts youth mission trips that leave the Canton area during the summer but the pandemic that began in 2020 made that plan unworkable.
“We would normally rotate around sites like Cincinnati, Columbus, West Virginia, New York … but those obviously wouldn’t have worked. So, we talked to Crossroads about hosting our mission trip here in Canton and they graciously agreed,” Monteleone shared.
Crossroads UMC Associate Pastor Michael Farmer said that King Park was selected for this new outreach because it is close enough to the church that you can see the steeple from the park.
“In this neighborhood there are a lot of struggles. There are more renters than owners of homes, more vacant lots than there are houses. Houses here were built a hundred years ago and command high rent, coming with landlord issues. But there are tons of kids. So, what is the asset? King Park, right here in the middle,” he said.
During that first week-long outreach event, the reception from kids in the neighborhood was overwhelmingly positive. “Close to the end of that week the kids asked us if we would be here the next week,” said Monteleone. “We were only planning on that one week so Crossroads called a donor to come out on Friday and see what we were doing, and they volunteered to donate funds so we could continue running for the remainder of the summer.”
This one-time mission trip has turned into a summer-long community outreach for the church. Funds have been established to provide for staff – one director and two or three counselors. The program will finish its run after seven or eight weeks this summer and will be offered during the entire summer in 2022.
The children who come vary from day to day. This is a natural product of the neighborhood, said Farmer. “Sometimes the team will walk the community, encouraging the kids to come down. It is fluid from week to week, depending on who is with mom and who is with dad this week.” He went on to elaborate that there were 19 children present the previous day, and sometimes there might be as few as five that come.
The numbers of children fluctuate along with languages. There are several languages spoken prominently in the neighborhood, with Spanish being a primary. Some of the children who come speak little to no English, and while some might view this as a barrier to be overcome, games, crafts and genuine love are universal connection points that allow the ministry to reach children effectively.
The day I visited featured the story of Ruth, and as three girls worked on crafting crowns, they shared their favorite days to be involved were Fridays.
One mother shared that these afternoons have been a blessing to her family with two young children. “We’ve enjoyed these last few weeks. I work from home, shoot here on my lunch break. They have definitely impacted for the better here and we’re definitely gonna miss it.”
King Park Summer Kids Program is something that the people of Crossroads UMC were not expecting to begin, but it has allowed them to invest into their neighborhood. “This is another touchpoint in the community for the church. Kids have fun here, and they go home and tell their neighbors,” Farmer said. In the same way people will share about how they are able to procure food from the Free Market, the church operates the Summer Kids Program “is a way of building a relationship and trust, and then you find out what the next step is for that person or family.”
Moving forward, Crossroads is investing into King Park Summer Kids Program and into the neighborhood. “We don’t want this to just be a one-week thing and all those white privilege things, those toxic things that we know about,” Farmer shared. “We are committed, and we want people here in the community to know that we are here.”
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.