This summer, as in years past, Reformed Church of Syracuse welcomed children to our building in the heart of the city for day camp. For four full eight-hour days, they played, made friends, and learned Bible stories. They did art and drama and spent time in nature. They ate breakfast and lunch. All of this happened for free.
Our theme was hope, so we explored the stories of Hannah, Obed, Paul, and Elizabeth to learn how hope is not just a good feeling, it is confident trust that God can do amazing things. He can even bring life out of death, as Jesus Christ proved when he rose from the dead. If God can do that, God can do anything.
We chose the hope theme this year when a member responded to the question, “What do kids in Syracuse need to hear?” with the simple word hope. Syracuse is the 13th poorest city in the U.S. according to the 2016 census, and it is the top city for people of color living in poverty, according to a 2015 study. That means nowhere in America are non-white people more likely to be living in poverty than in Syracuse, New York. It is an environment where kids often struggle to have hope. Against that background, our church is called to proclaim that there is always hope, because Christ is risen. In our context as a middle-class congregation serving people who are struggling financially, it is important to remember that we are partners, not saviors. Jesus Christ is the only savior. Parents who are poor are like any other parents: they want the best for their children. Our goal is to help them provide that even though they are short on money. And it is such a joy!
“We are partners, not saviors. Jesus Christ is the only savior.”
This year’s day camp was particularly exciting because we partnered with our friends in the Nepalese-speaking Christian community. Refugees have come to Syracuse from all over the world, including many from camps in Nepal. A Nepali church shares space with our congregation, so we invited them and other Nepali churches to sign up children for day camp. These Nepali Christians are godly people: their worship is Spirit-filled, their hearts burn to know the Word of God, and they are evangelizing new Nepali families on a weekly basis! They are full of zeal and love for the Lord. Also, many of them have very little financial means, having lived in refugee camps for as long as 28 years. A free place for their kids to go and be loved while learning about the gospel was perfect for them, and they jumped at the opportunity.
This was not a one-way partnership, however. Our church, like many, has an aging congregation. Not so for the Nepali church, which provided us with some wonderful young volunteers to help support our church’s faithful volunteers. And we needed them, because when the registrations for the Nepali youth came in, our enrollment doubled in size from the previous year. Can you imagine leading a team of retired volunteers expecting 40 kids, and suddenly they have 80 kids on their hands?
It was an exercise in faith for us. At first we worried and fretted about the numbers. Then the Spirit of God reminded us that Jesus Christ is risen, Jesus Christ is enthroned on high, and Jesus Christ reigns as sovereign God with a scepter of righteousness! And Jesus loves these kids! He will make day camp happen. By his almighty power, he did, and it was a wonderful week. The kids learned a lot, but our church learned a lot, too. We learned what happens when we trust in the power of God, whose word does not return void but accomplishes that which God pleases. It was humbling and awe-inspiring to see the kingdom of Jesus Christ becoming manifest in power through our weakness.
Through day camp God has challenged us to do three things that American churches must do in the future: put the gospel of Jesus Christ front and center, embrace multiethnic ministry, and fully trust God rather than our own strength. In the past, churches like ours could get by as respectable social clubs where white, middle-class people had group activities, nice music, and a place to donate their VHS tapes. Those days are over, those churches are dying, and God is calling for churches that boldly exalt Christ, minister across cultures, and submit everything to God.
Day camp is helping our church learn how to do that, and we thank God!
Ryan Cogswell is pastor of Reformed Church of Syracuse in Syracuse, New York.