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Acts of vandalism become catalyst for reaching teens

Acts of vandalism become catalyst for reaching teens

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Acts of vandalism become catalyst for reaching teens

Jan. 26, 2007    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0612}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

Churches of all sizes and shapes make it a priority to reach out to children and youth in their communities. This story is the second of three focusing on churches reaching out in their own unique ways to the young people around them.

Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Bradenton is like many churches, a congregation of retirees that had prayed for years that God would send them some young people. God answered their prayers in a very unusual way.

The church property had been suffering acts of vandalism for quite a while. The Rev. Charlie Rentz, pastor of the church, said he’d often find “skateboard damage, things broken, graffiti painted on church walls, and trash and beer cans left in the courtyard.”

Local police officers were asked to patrol the church property after church office hours. Church members also visited the property in an effort to limit damage. A church video security camera revealed that nearly 75 youth were “hanging out on the church grounds” on Friday evenings alone.

Neighborhood youth skateboard, listen to music and just hang out Friday nights at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Bradenton through the church's youth outreach ministry. "We gained their trust, and now they love and trust us, and we love them right back,” said volunteer Jan Froltz. Photo courtesy of Emmanuel United Methodist Church. Photo #07-0507.

The kids on the security tape were very different from the people in Emmanuel’s congregation. They dressed in the gothic style and had body piercings and unusual hairstyles.

In June 2006 Rentz preached a sermon from the third chapter of 1 Samuel. In this scripture passage young Samuel is called by God and chooses to follow God’s instruction. Rentz’s message encouraged his congregation to follow Samuel’s example and respond to God’s call for their church and ministry.

Within days of the sermon, 78-year-old church member Shirley Chenoweth visited Rentz. She said: “The Lord is sending us young people here every Friday night. They might not be the kind of young people we have prayed for God to send us, but he has sent them. Now what are we going to do about it?”

With Rentz’s blessing, Chenoweth organized a team to reach out to the young people who often trespassed on church property. One Friday night they opened the doors of the fellowship hall and invited the kids in for snacks and drinks. About 20 of the youth accepted.

The next week they opened the doors and offered refreshments again, but they also added access to a ping-pong table. More young people came.

In the three months that followed, the Emmanuel youth outreach team expanded its ministry. They offered hotdogs, hamburgers and pizza as they continued to invite the kids into the church building.

A number of local merchants who had also experienced vandalism in the past offered door prizes to kids who attended the church outreach. Regal Cinemas offered movie passes. Blockbuster Video offered free video rentals. TCBY offered free snack coupons. Someone donated an iPod to be given away.

Today, more than 80 young people attend the outreach every Friday night. “It is not uncommon to see a large group eating snacks, playing ping-pong and just visiting with the adults who support them,” Rentz says. “The church members that are here are mostly retirees in their 70s and 80s. It is like these kids have found a new set of grandparents.”

Jan Froltz volunteers her time and talents each week. “Isn’t it remarkable what God has done?” she says. “Some of these kids had lost trust in teachers and parents so God brought grandparents like us into their lives. They don’t feel threatened with us. We gained their trust, and now they love and trust us, and we love them right back.”

As church members spoke to the kids and created relationships the kids told them they just wanted a place to hang out and someone to listen to them.

More than 80 Bradenton youth now participate in Emmanuel United Methodist Church's outreach teen ministry. Acts of vandalism by some of the youth brought them and the congregation together. Photo courtesy of Emmanuel United Methodist Church. Photo #07-0508.

Instead of trying to “cram Jesus down their throats,” Rentz, Chenoweth, Ed and Judy Graniwicz, and the outreach team say they simply try to gain the kids’ trust and let them know the church cares about them. Rentz’s son Caleb plays guitar in the courtyard for the kids. Local Christian bands are brought in to play, as well.

Eighteen-year-old Nick Gill attends on Friday nights. “I come because it is so fun and the people here are respectful and nice,” he said. “They let us skate and have fun. They talk to us. We can talk to them about anything.”

Tina Williams, 13, agrees. “A friend told me about this place a while ago. It is really fun and the people are cool. I hang out here with my friends and a lot of people skateboard. The people from the church are awesome. We look at them as our grandparents.”

Rentz says the youth outreach program has been “financially and graciously supported” by the entire congregation. He also notes there has not been a single act of vandalism at the church since the opening of the youth outreach program.

And what does Chenoweth think? “These kids are a gift from God.”

Emmanuel United Methodist Church’s outreach runs every Friday, 6-9 p.m.


This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla. His columns appear in the Naples Sun Times newspaper and Faith & Tennis magazine.