Young Lutherans bring three core practices to Louisiana
Connor Ashley, 15, of Baroda, Mich., was so excited to be helping some north Baton Rouge elementary students improve their reading, he said, “I’m getting tingles just talking about it.”
Ashley is one of about 50 young Lutherans from across the country who came to Baton Rouge on Thursday to participate in a reading festival to benefit about 55 summer Freedom School students at Melrose Elementary.
He is also one of more than 36,000 teens and adult volunteers attending the 2012 Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s Youth Gathering, which began Wednesday and runs through Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and nearby convention center in New Orleans.
As part of the conference’s outreach, teens were divided into three groups of about 12,000 each to participate in three service projects called “practices.”
Their goal is to “practice discipleship,” “practice peacemaking” and “practice justice” on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The busload of teens who came to Melrose Elementary on Thursday were doing their “justice” practice.
Three other reading festivals, also hosted by Lutheran teens, were to be held at three Baton Rouge locations on Friday, and three more will be held Saturday.
For nearly an hour, Ashley helped two young girls read and write while sitting on the floor of the school cafeteria.
“Both of my parents are teachers, but when I grew up, I had a hard time reading,” Ashley, a member of Saron Lutheran Church in St. Joseph, Mich., said. “I didn’t have that spark that made me want to read or write. Both of the girls I just was with have the urge to write; they have that spark.”
Where the “justice” comes in, Ashley said, is when society in general and political leaders in particular make education a higher priority both here in Louisiana and nationally.
“That’s how we get out of this ever-moving circle of poverty,” Ashley said. “After this, I’m going to volunteer more in my own community and come back to Louisiana because it’s fun and I love the gumbo!”
Kenzie Alexander, 19, a student at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., was a “serving companion” for the group and explained “justice” a different way.
“Justice is not just service but righting something that is wrong,” Alexander said. “Today we are bringing justice to these children who don’t necessarily have the type of upbringing that we have had. Literacy will help them to grow up with a better education and end poverty by increasing literacy.”
The Rev. Kim Little-Brooks, pastor of the 400-member Lutheran Church of Our Savior in Baton Rouge, said these kinds of service projects are important for the teens, because “they need to get out of their own normal life and see other people’s lives. They — both these students and the Lutheran teens — can see there are people who live totally different lives than them but are just like they are.”
The noise in the school lunchroom was nearly deafening as the teens read to the children who talked, laughed and read back to the teens. Other activities included face painting, games, drama, and some of the girls did cheerleading.
At the end of the session the children were given packets of age-appropriate books to take home and the teens got back on a charter bus for New Orleans.
Grace Katt, 15, a petite blonde from South Haven, Mich., was reading a colorful paperback book, “I Stink” to Tariq Robins, 5, who was absorbing the words like a little sponge.
“I like it. Read it again!” the energetic Robins declared after Katt finished.
“This is expanding my comfort zone,” Katt said. “This makes me feel closer to God, because that is what I know he wants me to do. He wants me to help people. And they are so excited to learn.”
East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said she was glad the Lutheran teens were here, especially to help the children read.
“It engages our kids,” she said. “It engages them and these (Lutheran students) are an example to our kids to get involved in community service projects.”
Nicole Elmore-Banks, Melrose school principal, was also pleased with the reading festival.
“This motivates (the students) and shows them literacy can be fun and a positive component of a growing life,” Elmore-Banks said. “It gives our students diversity and shows them other people have an interest in them from a different culture.”
Freedom School director Eric Scott said the 55 children were from more than 20 area grade schools, pre-K through fifth grade.
“It means a lot to our young people to know these (Lutheran volunteers) came from all over just to read to them,” Scott said.
The readings were expected to reach more than 400 area children, according to the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, executive director of the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge, who helped coordinate the local events with the churches, schools and BREC.
Matt Hoffman, a lifelong Lutheran and summer intern with the Interfaith Federation, said organizers chose reading to the children as a service project — or justice experience — to coincide with the Lutheran Gathering program’s three core practices of discipleship, peacemaking and justice.
“The idea is to open their minds to show what justice is so they can see it is more than just rebuilding houses,” Hoffman said. “We’re using the reading lessons as a way for them to see the inequalities in our school system and fixing that is a part of the idea of justice.”