Editor's note: This article was updated April 22, 2015.
Eight months into a Florida Conference pilot project intended to help young adults discern their calling in faith and life, the lessons are many – and not just for the people who signed up to live and work together as part of the Young Adult Missional Movement (YAMM).
For the fledgling program’s director, Heidi Aspinwall, the past year has been a whir of learning experiences, from figuring out how to match young people with service opportunities that spark their imagination to practical matters, like getting grocery money and bus fare to a mission house in a hurry.
The months since mission participants moved into their respective digs in Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Orlando have included moments of exhilaration and exasperation. Aspinwall, who oversaw a similar program in South Florida before being tapped for the Florida Conference job, takes it all in stride.
“It’s a normal course of events when you’re working with young adults,” she said. “You have to be willing to adapt for life changes.”She’s excited that the program will continue and is expected to expand next fall by two more houses: one in the Miami area and one near the farm country of Immokalee, both offering fertile – albeit strikingly different – mission fields.
Christians ages 18 to 30 are encouraged to apply by April 30. In exchange for room, board, transportation expenses and a small monthly stipend, they must commit to a year of mission work in Florida and be willing to live in a home with other young Christians trying to discern their place in God’s plan.
YAMM is expected to dovetail with the two-year Global Mission Fellows US-2 program of the General Board of Global Ministries. The Florida Conference has received missionaries through the program before, but this year the conference has been designated an official affiliate eligible to receive young adult missionaries from out of state.
Because the two programs are similar, YAMM participants and Global Ministries missionaries will share retreat opportunities and outings, Aspinwall said. The mix of one- and two-year commitments is expected to offer additional opportunities for service, fellowship and spiritual growth to young people as they seek their discipleship path.
YAMM currently has 13 participants living in three houses. Not all started at the outset. Three of the original “YAMMers,” as they have been nicknamed, departed the program for various reasons, and others took their place.
Participants interviewed acknowledged that the experience has had its ups and downs, particularly for those uprooted from their home environments.
They said they not only had to learn the rhythms of a new community outside their living quarters but inside as well.
Finding their way
Take Ruth Berlus, 21, for instance. She was born in Haiti and grew up in South Florida, where she was active in ministry at South Dade Haitian UMC, Homestead, and took on leadership roles from the age of 10. She occupies a parsonage near Reeves UMC, Orlando, with four other young adults, including one from a South Dade Hispanic community and another from Northern Ireland.
Unlike some of her housemates, Berlus did not attend college.
“I grew up in a not-so-rich environment,” Berlus said. “It’s ‘the ‘hood.’”
She said she was thrilled with her living quarters in Orlando but initially struggled with homesickness. In the Haitian culture, adult children rarely leave their parents and home environs, she explained. When she initially heard about YAMM, she thought it was a “crazy idea” and definitely not for her.
Still, she was searching for something.
“I’m a woman of prayer,” she said. “I began to pray. I said, ‘I need something new, to give me a new perspective.’”
She became convinced that Orlando was God’s plan for her when her parents offered no objection.
“I knew it was God because the day I spoke to my parents about it, they said, ‘Go.’”Her mission is working in St. Luke’s UMC’s ministry to East Winter Garden, an economically depressed neighborhood. She works with children at an elementary school and at a neighborhood recreation center’s after-school program. The mission allows her to use her gifts of public speaking, dance and song to inspire children to learn.
Berlus, a self-described former class clown, identifies with the children. She said they face increasing pressures to perform at an academic level once expected of much older students.
“The children are pressured so much,” she said. “They’re seeking so much. … They want something new, and they want something to shift off the negative things.”
Samantha Aupperlee, 25, is a Florida State University (FSU) graduate with a degree in religious studies. She grew up as a Methodist and was working in a preschool setting when she heard Florida Bishop Ken Carter talking about the YAMM project about two years ago. She later applied and was placed in the Orlando house.
She is assigned to Tuskawilla UMC, Casselberry, where she works as youth director. She also helps with the church’s food bank that serves 300 to 400 families.
Both the mission work and the living arrangements have offered learning experiences, Aupperlee said.
“We’ve learned a lot of patience and grace with each other,” she said of her fellow YAMMers. “We’re all in the program together, and we can come home and understand each other’s struggles.”
Though she hasn’t settled on a career, the experience has been valuable, she said.
“It has taught me I could take on a role I didn’t know I could do,” Aupperlee said. “I never thought of myself as a leader.”
On Florida’s West Coast, Nicole Cornwell, 23, was one of four young adults to move into the YAMM house in Pinellas Park last August. She recently graduated with a degree in religion from FSU, where she was active in the Wesley Foundation. She found herself with a diploma but no clear idea about a career.
“I had a vague understanding of what it was going to be,” Cornwell said of YAMM. “I knew that service was important to me and people were important to me. I really strive to live out my personal faith.”
She has been working with United Methodist Cooperative Ministries (UMCM) Suncoast, where she teaches English as a second language. Her students are mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants, but a few speak Arabic or Vietnamese. Many are working toward citizenship.
Though she is still trying to discern her next step, the program has helped her learn that she enjoys working directly with people in the community rather than being confined to an office.
In Jacksonville, Lauren Ballantoni, 25, is a master’s degree student in social work and public administration at FSU who is working in the YAMM program with Ortega UMC.
“I was looking for an opportunity to take a break from school and refresh and renew,” she said. Since joining the Ortega staff, she has organized monthly mission projects for the congregation and recently helped coordinate a mission to Guatemala, where the team finished building a wall for a church and held Vacation Bible School for some of the village children.
She was accustomed to living with roommates in college, but the immersion in Christian community has been a change.
“It’s being with a church and then going home to having roommates … the sense of belonging,” she said. “We’re all in this together. We’re going through it every day. … It took us some time, but we definitely have figured out the rhythm of the house and how to operate together.”
Other missions undertaken by YAMM participants include getting a campus ministry going at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.
Aspinwall and Rachael Sumner, chairperson of the YAMM steering committee and the conference associate lay leader for reaching next generations, said they have been impressed with how the young adults support one another like family.
What sets YAMM apart from other programs is the emphasis on discernment, Aspinwall said. Participants can try out a job or mission and also list it as work experience toward their eventual career goals.
“I think we recognized that young adults want to live a life of substance with meaningful work, and they want that program to lead somewhere,” Aspinwall said. “It’s a year toward something, not just a year off.”
Sumner, who worked on the design team, said she was amazed at how much has been accomplished in a little over a year.
“It went from an idea to ‘OK, let’s get this baby launched,’” she recalled. Eventually the goal is to have a YAMM house in each of the conference’s nine districts, she said.
Sumner said she has attended YAMM retreats and listened to participants’ stories. She enjoys forging those relationships. She became involved in young adult ministry partly because she remembers her own mentors at that age.
“People in The United Methodist Church invested in me,” she said. “I want to be that person for them (YAMMers).”
She also speaks as a parent.
“I have 10-year-old twins coming up in the church,” Sumner said. “What’s the church going to look like when they’re 20?”
Click here to access the YAMM application.
-- Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor. Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.