Youth from four Heritage District congregations form friendships and faith while engaging in mission at Cass Community Social Services in Detroit.
“One elder, one deacon, a youth pastor, and an almost-70-year-old grandma walk into a warehouse. With us are 11 amazing youth, 7th through 11th grade. The warehouse is the Cass Community Social Services World Building, and this was our residence for five days.”
It sounds like the beginning of a good joke, but it’s not. Pam Myers used this unlikely—yet perfect—setting to begin her personal reflections on the recent mission trip she, her 14-year-old granddaughter, and others from the Michigan Conference’s Heritage District took from July 31 to August 5.
In a short amount of time, Pam witnessed youth from four churches put their Christian faith to work, making friends and learning along the way. After a long hiatus from such trips because of the pandemic, youth bonded by working hard, playing even harder, and caring for each other.
And yes, Pam is that almost-70-year-old grandma, lovingly called “Hip G-ma” by these United Methodist youth.
Four congregations from the Heritage District were represented: Commerce UMC, Dixboro UMC, Manchester UMC, and Marshall UMC. The adult leaders were Rev. Dillon Burns and Pam Myers from Manchester, Rev. Mary Hagley, deacon at Dixboro, and Andrew Ruhlen, lay youth ministries director at Commerce.
The week-long mission to Cass Community Social Services in Detroit had been scheduled for 2020 but the pandemic put that on pause. Trips like this are returning, and this district-supported effort made it financially and logistically feasible for multiple churches to participate, especially when a congregation only had a couple of youth interested in going.
For youth, the pandemic was challenging and isolating in many ways, yet their resilient spirits have buoyed them and many have anticipated new in-person activities. Pam’s granddaughter, Izzabell, had been waiting for five years for such an experience. Her older brother has been on similar trips to the Upper Peninsula, so she was excited this was her chance.
Rev. Mary Hagley enjoyed having a group to take. It’s been five years since she has been able to take youth on a trip, and such experiences are wonderful ways to get to know them on a deeper level. And it was especially meaningful to connect with the youth from her church and see who they are now and how they’ve grown in their spiritual life and service to others.
Bringing together youth of different ages, from different backgrounds and communities, in addition to not being able to have many pre-trip meetings where everyone was present, might be worrisome for some. But the youth from these four congregations proved to be a great group and gelled quickly.
Deacon Mary witnessed this early on during their team-building games and icebreaker exercises on Sunday. Some were reserved at first, but everyone settled in as they worked through their discomfort and got to know one another better. “By Monday evening,” Mary said, “you would have never guessed they were from four different churches. And I think that was the beauty of it all, that anyone looking in would not have known we were from four different churches.”
The visit to Cass Community Social Services is typical of mission trips churches go on. Cass’ vision is expansive and their service to the people living in areas of concentrated poverty in Detroit is always evolving. Each year 700,000 meals are served, 300 men, women, and children are housed, 125 developmentally disabled adults participate in a skill-building program, and hundreds get medical care through a free clinic with the help of Wayne State University, to only name a few.
There were several projects for the adults and youth to help with and to bond together doing, so Rev. Sue Pethoud, United Methodist deacon serving at Cass, put them to work. Each day provided a variety of tasks throughout the large campus, including shredding documents, tearing apart old electronics, mowing in the Tiny Homes neighborhood, bagging food for their lunch program, and cleaning up the grounds of an old Roman Catholic church that will one day be a community center.
The most daunting project was painting the basement of the Fox Building, a former convent that is being converted into a family center where families can have private rooms to stay overnight. The mission team spent parts of four out of the five days working at sealing and painting old brick basement walls. When complications arose causing recently painted surfaces to peel and require repainting, it was quite a discouraging blow for everyone.
But the youth were committed to the cause and took pride in what they had accomplished together. Their work ethic really shined through when the adult leaders assumed the youth had had enough and wouldn’t want to go back and finish the painting project.
“I was sure I would have no one left on Friday who wanted to go back and paint in that Fox Building,” confessed Deacon Mary. “And I think I had six kids volunteer to go back and do that.” Mary heard loud and clear that the youth wanted to complete the project they started.
During those long painting sessions, the youth made the work enjoyable by having impromptu “concerts” listening and singing to Taylor Swift songs. They also had fun playing games, especially hide-and-seek, each night in the World Building where they slept.
One day they went downtown Detroit on the QLINE and experienced the sights and sounds of the city. Eating at a Mediterranean restaurant was another highlight of the trip.
The mission team also took work breaks to explore the neighborhood by meeting people who live at Cass and having meals with them. Pam Myers witnessed the youth interacting with resident children at a park playground. She was amazed at how well the youth moved beyond their comfort zone as the children and youth played together. Pam said, “These little ones [at the park] begged to be picked up. There was one [youth] that had three hanging on her, and they all wanted to be held.”
The youth bonded through work and play and also by caring for one another. A couple of them came alone from their church, and the youth took time to get to know them and make them feel welcome and an important part of the team. Some of the older youth watched out for the younger ones. Pam noticed, “We had one young man in particular that was quite a leader. I was very impressed with him. And he always made sure everyone was included.”
Mission experiences have an immediate impact on the lives of those involved. What’s lasting is the relationship building and the chance to make new friends and explore what it means to live out one’s faith, to be disciples of Jesus in the world and serve one another.
Rev. Dillon Burns summed the experience up nicely: “It was just a lot of fun. It was really wonderful to have that mix of knowing we were doing important work, being helpful, but also just having a really positive experience, which I was so glad for working with youth. Because that’s everything I could have asked for. . . . We’re doing something important because of our faith.”
The youth from the Heritage District who came together for a week of mission discovered more about themselves. They also learned how other people live and work in this world. And they were blessed by how God brought them together so quickly to become friends.
As the youth were heading home, Pam said, “Their group chat was on fire as soon as we hit the car on Friday night.” She and the other adult leaders had so much fun watching them grow, and their hope and prayer is that the fires kindled within the hearts and souls of the youth will burn brightly in the days ahead.
To see more photos of their trip, view the slideshow video below.
Cass Community Social Services is an EngageMI project. Congregations and individuals wanting to financially support this ministry can submit a check to the Michigan Conference at 1161 East Clark Road, Suite 212, DeWitt MI 48820. Write this phrase in the memo line: “CCMM #3005.”