Church Summer Camps Teach Kids to Put Faith Into Action

From lower left, Tennyson Florer-Bixler, Grace Hochstetler, Kate McGarrah, Molly Sprague, and Chelsea Johnson (at center) work on their “special box,” a hybrid power plant/circus/office building/amusement park, during “We Have the Power,” a community-organizing camp involving eight congregations in the Durham, N.C., area. (Photo courtesy of Franklin Golden)
From lower left, Tennyson Florer-Bixler, Grace Hochstetler, Kate McGarrah, Molly Sprague, and Chelsea Johnson (at center) work on their “special box,” a hybrid power plant/circus/office building/amusement park, during “We Have the Power,” a community-organizing camp involving eight congregations in the Durham, N.C., area. (Photo courtesy of Franklin Golden)

Twenty kids marched around a multipurpose room at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church on a recent Thursday, following the path of a cardboard highway that a day earlier they discovered had divided the city’s neighborhoods and altered their vision for the community.

“Ain’t gonna let the freeway turn me around,” they sang, hearkening back to the civil rights activism of the 1960s.

Instead of the traditional vacation Bible school, this downtown church partnered with seven other congregations — black, white, Baptist, Jewish, Episcopal, Pentecostal and nondenominational — to put on a community-organizing camp for kids aged 4 to 12.

“We Have the Power,” as the weeklong camp was dubbed, represents a recent movement within activist networks to invite children and youth into political action, and a renewed movement within religious communities to live out biblical teaching with good works.

Across the United States, churches are joining with social-change organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Children’s Defense Fund and Kids4Peace to use summer breaks to teach children and youth about the civil rights movement and how they might be part of its renewal.

It reflects a wider trend in secular summer camping, as almost half of American Camp Association accredited camps focus on civic engagement or service learning.

“We’re all God’s children, and we all should look out for one another,” said Sabrina McCall, whose two daughters are attending a CDF Freedom School in Rocky Mount, N.C., this summer.

The CDF Freedom Schools are the most common of the faith-related justice camps, serving thousands of kids and proliferating at some 180 sites across 30 different states, from California to Massachusetts.

Though the program is secular, more than 50 of the CDF Freedom Schools are hosted by Methodist, Baptist and other churches and some Jewish congregations. Every morning, the kids gather for “Harambee,” a kind of pep rally based on a Swahili word meaning, “Let’s get together.” During Harambee, the kids sing a Quincy Jones arrangement of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and the Freedom School theme song, “Something Inside So Strong,” which references the biblical city of Jericho.

The CDF schools emphasize literacy to help impoverished kids toward a more secure future. But the content of the books they read is civil rights history, and the Freedom Schools invite the young scholars into issue-based political advocacy and community service.

The Freedom School tradition grows out of the Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worked to register black voters in Mississippi. Since then, Freedom Schools have trained new activists. CDF Freedom Schools across the U.S. celebrate a “National Day of Social Action” each summer, focusing on issues like voting rights, health care access, gun violence or education funding.

“They will definitely get some practice in engaging in social change,” said Reginald Blount, an assistant professor of youth formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, which is hosting its first CDF Freedom School this summer in Evanston, Ill., through the first week in August. “It very much is a children-and-youth empowerment curriculum.”

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
Jesse James DeConto

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