By Jen Gruendler
On Christmas Eve 2020, in order to keep our congregation and community safe, I found myself at home, far away from family, trying to muster the Christmas joy to worship online. At about 3:00 in the afternoon, my doorbell rang. I heard some recognizable giggles and ruckus and to my surprise five tenth-graders (fondly known to me and my congregation as The Pandemic Garden Crew) were masked and huddled on my porch to wish me a Merry Christmas, drop off a gift (that included a mug that said “Choose Joy”) and to say a quick pandemic “hi” before they all headed to their small family gatherings. The Holy Spirit cultivates and resurrects joy in mysterious ways, right? Even through teenagers, which I suppose shouldn’t surprise us given the Christmas story?
Here’s the truth of the matter though, this incredible tenth-grade small group was born out of desperation. As Rev. Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, recently said in a webinar I attended on The Church Post-Pandemic, “desperation is a spiritual gift”.
In spring and summer 2020, all church and non-church plans were canceled in approximately 2 days, the only regular ministry beyond online worship and some caring ministries happening in our congregation was Open Table, our mobile food truck ministry, which serves a few hundred burritos and snacks to hungry people in Rochester, MN.
On a desperate walk (just to get out of our homes) a colleague and I decided to start a community garden to grow food to give away to the food truck guests. But we needed support. So, these 5 tenth graders got together (and a team of families as well) and showed up week after week all spring, summer, and into fall to plant, tend, and harvest the two garden plots. The youth worked, played, served and processed this likely once in a century global crisis, a political uprising, and the challenges of being a teenager in the middle of it by digging in the dirt and making life grow when it felt like everything around them was dying. Of course, tons of squash, peppers, tomatoes, herbs, 3 green onions (yes, only 3), among other things were given away to the community, but many more hungry souls were fed in the actual act of gardening, including mine.
This “Garden Crew” inspired further local service work for our youth to partake in.
- Raking leaves for the homebound and lonely
- Setting up pen pals across generations
- Collecting and passing out books and burritos to underserved neighborhoods identified by the school district
- Creating a Christmas cookie brigade to deliver boxes of homemade cookies to stressed out college kids taking finals at home and youth and young adults experiencing homelessness
- The resurrection of a mini pantry on our church property
So, reflecting on this, I have to ask the following. What stewardship practices learned during a pandemic season of ministry can we cultivate with youth going forward?
- Mission and ministry are mutually transformative. If you (or your congregation) invest in ministry with youth and young adults not only will they grow in faith, but they will transform you and your Church. They instinctively know how to care for people, how to cultivate joy, and how to share their gifts and resources. We just need to give them the wide open (with some boundaries) space to do so and to accompany them in their holy work.
- Look around and see what needs there are right in your own community. We know this is the way to accompany people and do mission well, but we can get distracted and busy and caught up in “what we always do” forgetting to listen deeply to our own local neighbors.
- The best “lessons” on stewardship for Youth and Young Adults are taught by doing. Dig in the dirt. Chalk up the sidewalk. Roll burritos. Rake the leaves of your saints’ yards. Write a hard-written note. Collect and give away books. Have a Christmas cookie brigade.
- Desperate times call for holy innovation and adaptation and there are few demographics better at innovating and adapting than adolescents. It is one of the spiritual gifts they bring to The Church, so we better listen to them and make room for them to lead us.
I will never forget Christmas 2020. Yes, of course because we were in the middle of the COVID 19 Pandemic, but I will also never forget the way those 10th graders tended and converted their youth minister’s spirit and faith. And it all started with a garden, some burritos, and a few youth who said “yes” in a desperate time.
About the Author
Jen Gruendler is the Youth and Young Adult Minister at Zumbro Lutheran Church in Rochester, MN. She has an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and for over 13 years has enjoyed ministry work with youth and young adults that has led her to mosaic with confirmation students, run a coffee house for and with college students (while tending to their faith journeys), and learning to garden with teenagers. She loves her rescue dog Roscoe, good iced coffee, and traveling.