NEW YORK: Youth mission trip brings perspective, understanding of community

August 21, 2009

The high school youth group from Christ Church Bronxville in New York embarked on a weeklong mission trip on August 9 to Atlanta and Covington, Georgia, where they got their hands dirty helping to clear debris from and make repairs to low-income homes.

The teenagers from Bronxville, Mount Vernon, Tuckahoe and Yonkers are part of the Episcopal Youth Community, which provides opportunities for Christian service through weekly meetings and regular volunteer activities throughout the year.

Led by Krista Dias, director of youth ministry, and the Rev. Michael Bird, rector, the group worked with the Fowler Street Redevelopment Corporation in Covington and Emmaus House in downtown Atlanta.

Fowler Street Redevelopment was created by area clergy in an effort to prevent racial and economic segregation in Covington, and keep local people from being completely displaced. The corporation purchased a group of homes in an area previously stricken with poverty and crime and turned them into low-income homes, creating a stable neighborhood. The youth group worked to repair decaying fences, clear a nearby clogged creek bed, install and replace floor tiles, clear roofs of branches and remove debris from underneath houses.

Of equal importance, the youth spent time getting to know some of Fowler Street's residents and listening to their stories. One man in particular struck the teens. He was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who sustained severe injuries in combat. Hearing his story and understanding that he could not do essential home repairs on his own helped the teens to understand the importance of giving of themselves in service to others.

The latter part of the week was spent working at Emmaus House, an inner-city ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta that provides after-school programs, a food pantry, groups for seniors, art classes and more to residents of the Peoplestown neighborhood in downtown Atlanta.

Located next to Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, Peoplestown is an impoverished neighborhood riddled with gang violence. The group was deeply moved by a walking tour of the neighborhood, during which they spotted 48 empty homes in a seven-block radius and visited a playground that had been built on a "brownfield," land contaminated by industrial use. The group also met the mother of a young man who was a member of the Emmaus House community and had been shot and killed just down the street -- he was mistaken for a local gang member.

While at Emmaus House, the group overhauled the interior of a large apartment that will be used by postgraduate interns who will work on issues such as teen pregnancy and sex crimes in Peoplestown.

Despite the problems in Peoplestown, the group was struck by the friendliness of its residents. One of the missions of Emmaus House is to draw attention not only to the problems in Peoplestown, but also to the humanity of the people there, and to recognize their needs and rights.

The group also managed some leisure time in Atlanta: they watched the Braves play the Washington Nationals, ate at the Waffle House, sampled hotdogs at The Varsity, a classic Atlanta drive-in, and saw sharks, whales, starfish and more at the Georgia Aquarium.

While the issues of Peoplestown and Covington were foreign to some, for others it closely resembled their home neighborhoods. 

Experiencing the Atlanta area together allowed the teenagers to recognize and talk about the challenges that face their local community. At the end of the trip, Bird and Dias reminded the teens that the trip wasn't just about their physical labor in Georgia; "it was about recognizing the ways we can come together and love one another as Christ loved us, every day while at home in New York," said a parish news release.