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Church connects with neighborhood youth through fitness center

Church connects with neighborhood youth through fitness center

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church connects with neighborhood youth through fitness center

Jan. 18, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0429}

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

In neighborhoods all across the county there are kids who have the opportunity to immerse themselves in after-school activities, like sports, and there are those with no place to go once school gets out.

It's no different in the western Palm Beach County community of Belle Grade, but one neighborhood church is striving to catch the latter group of youth before they fall through the cracks.

BELLE GLADE — Youth who live in the neigborhood around Community United Methodist Church here work out at the church's fitness and game room center. Photo by Disney Weaver, Photo #06-297.

Members of Community United Methodist Church recognized the need for youth in Belle Glade to experience more physical exercise, discipleship and Christian fellowship, so they launched a fitness and game room that's open three times each week. The goal is to provide an opportunity for fellowship and recreation and to foster mentoring relationships between the church's adults and the neighborhood's youth.

"We've had the fortunate situation of having donations of some significant weight equipment and game room equipment," said Disney Weaver, the church's full-time youth and young adult coordinator. "We had the facility and were always raising the question, 'How do we utilize it in the most effective way?' In Belle Glade, there's boys and girls clubs, school activities, sports, but there is a gap when it comes to everyone having a positive, safe, drug-free environment."

Through the church's Hispanic ministry, some teenagers and adults had already begun to regularly use the cardiovascular and strength training equipment at different times throughout the day.

"We just began to explore the opportunity of designing an outreach ministry or program utilizing the facility we have," Weaver said. "We developed an idea of an after-school activity, opening up the church for teenagers to come and be here and have a safe place for recreation, as well as a place to be nurtured."

Weaver says they dream of mentoring the youth and establishing relationships with the neighborhood, "with those right around our church."

About 25 to 30 different youth gather at the church in the afternoons during the school year, with about 10 to 15 visiting every weekday. A devotional each Wednesday at 5 p.m. leads to a discussion of a current issue facing the diverse Belle Glade community. The church also has a Sunday evening youth group fellowship that was sparsely attended before the after-school activities began.

Residents around the church are primarily African-American, British West Indian, Haitian, Jamaican and a variety of other ethnic groups. Weaver said the Wednesday devotional time helps him and the ministry volunteers get to know some of the backgrounds of the youth.

"Many of the youth we encounter have a connection to another church, whether Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist, non-denominational or whatever. We seek to be ecumenical in our approach and not proselytize, but facilitate. We communicate to them that there is a spiritual component to healthy living, to being a whole person," he said.

Weaver said the church has also provided computer and Internet access, encouraging youth to download sermons or listen to Christian podcasts.

Support for the program from the congregation has been mixed. Weaver said some members have donated exercise equipment they no longer use and provided positive feedback. Others have expressed resistance, asking, "Do we really think they would fit into this church or become members here?"

"I tell them, 'If we are hospitable and welcoming to them, that's a possibility.' " he said. "I'm not going to shortchange what God could do in this scenario. I expect that we're going to get some different comments, and I just try to meet them with an informative defense."

Weaver says the church built an educational wing as a response to integration in the 1960s with the goal of making it a private school. "I'm very proud to say that it is being used in an integrated manner and is a place that is multicultural," he said. "It's not just for our own people. We're establishing a rapport with a younger generation that we hadn't been effectively reaching through our worship or even our traditional Christian education."

Every Monday an intercessory prayer group of adult members meets at the church. Weaver has taken some of the youths' prayer concerns to that gathering. When he does, he lets the youth know others in the church are praying for them.

"It's a way to build a bridge to some of the people who may be the most reluctant (to support the after-school ministry)," he says.

Weaver said he is motivated by the interaction with the youth and the opportunity to get to know them. One youth expressed an interest in going to college, and through Weaver's mentoring he has enrolled in classes — an event that stands out in a neighborhood where only 9 percent of the population has a college education.

"That's an encouraging thing," Weaver said.


This article relates to Health and Wholeness and Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.