From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Church educators are urged to build "a community of all God's

Date 05 Feb 2001 14:35:47

Note #6372 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


Church educators are urged to build "a community of all God's children"

APCE convention is enriched by city's proud civil-rights heritage

by Evan Silverstein

BIRMINGHAM, AL -- One thing the Rev. Barbara Stoop pledges never to do again
-- at any cost -- is to miss the Association of Presbyterian Church
Educators (APCE) conference.

In her 20 years as a minister, Stoop has attended 15 of the annual
APCE-sponsored events, which bring together Christian educators, clergy, lay
Christian education volunteers and others involved in the educational
ministry of four Presbyterian and reformed denominations in the United
States and Canada.

"I come back every year, because it completely renews my ministry and my
work,"” Stoop said during the four-day 2001 APCE Conference at the Sheraton
Civic Center Hotel here, which started on Jan. 31.
On one occasion, Stoop, who is pastor of education at Westminster
Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC, passed on attending the gathering --
and regretted it, big time.

"One year I had to skip it because I thought it was too expensive," she
said. "And I had the worst year that I've had in my (education) ministry in
the entire 20 years. Since then, I've made it a priority to put enough money
in my budget. Whatever it takes so I can get here every time. It just
revitalizes me for an entire year. It's great."

The APCE conference was intended to give its more than 1,000 North American
interdenominational participants opportunities to see the advancement of
education in the church, through networking, workshops, informative plenary
speakers, a lively Market Place and busy Book and Resource Center offering
educational resources, children’s books and devotional reading.

"I find an area where I have a weakness, and focus on that area," Stoop said
after returning from the resource center. "I come and get revitalized, and
then, when I go back, that area changes. It just improves greatly."

The event also included visits to two historic civil-rights sites in
Birmingham, musical worship services and a performance by a choir
representing Stillman College, a Presbyterian Church (USA)-related school in
Tuscaloosa, AL.

The program's theme, Living Into God's Gift of Community, challenged
conference-goers to explore what it means to "receive, accept, build and
celebrate God's gift of community to the church"” and to create a "worldwide
community of all God’s children."

"To receive the gift of community is the calling for Godly intimacy that has
no room for un-Godly competition," said the Rev. Eugenia A. Gamble, head of
staff at the First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham and a plenary speaker.
"No room for shame-based relationships and actions. No room for violence. No
room for self-serving lies. ...… No room for using people."

APCE also honored longtime Christian educator Carol Wehrheim, of Princeton,
NJ, with its 2001 Educator of the Year award. Wehrheim said educators must
keep looking for ways to build connections between congregations and

"As educators, and in the whole educational ministry, because we work
primarily with smaller groups within the congregation, we have some of the
best opportunities to help people understand that the church is about
community," said Wehrheim, a curriculum writer and editor, education
consultant and clerk of session at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton.
"Then to broaden that understanding, to take that out into the world.

"For me, education is not limited to what you do within the church
building," she said. "Unless what you do moves out into the larger
community, then what happens inside will eventually wither."

APCE, a professional ecumenical organization, serves educational ministries
of the Reformed family of churches in association with the Presbyterian
Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Reformed Church in
America (RCC) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).

"The community theme is really a reflection of the kind of networks that we
have in the communities," said the Rev. Edward Craxton, associate director
for Christian education and leader development in the PC(USA)'s
Congregational Ministries Division. "Some educators just put this down each
year as an important place to network with other people to get support. To
make contacts, to find out about resources, to share ideas. All of those
kinds of things."

Craxton said the conference has drawn more than a thousand participants for
a number of years. He speculated that next year's APCE gathering in Toronto,
Canada, could draw a record crowd.

Meanwhile, organizers drew upon Birmingham's turbulent civil-rights history
as a compelling example of what it means to struggle through adversity to
community. Participants marked Feb. 1, the first day of Black HistoryMonth,
with a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a prayer vigil at
the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where a racially motivated bombing on
Sept. 15, 1963, claimed the lives of four young African-American girls, and
put a painful face on the early Civil Rights movement.

The pilgrimage put "flesh" on the civil-rights campaign for educator Becky
Sutherland, director of Children's Ministries at West Valley Presbyterian
Church in Cupertino, CA.

"There were people at the church who had been there during the movement in
the '50s and '60s and '70s, and they put flesh on what went on during that
time," said Sutherland, who is also an elementary school reading resource
teacher for the San Jose, CA, unified public school system. "When we went to
the Civil Rights Institute it just gave it more depth. It became more real.
And for somebody who has always lived on the West Coast, (the Civil Rights
movement) was always real distant for us. So it made a part of our history
that was really sad come alive."

The Rev. Christopher Hamlin, senior pastor at Sixteenth Street Baptist
Church, a plenary speaker, pointed out to participants that making community
"does not happen overnight. It takes a lot of time, great effort, great

"It is hard work. It is an arduous task," he said. "To be a part of God's
community does require that we understand the calling that is upon us. We're
called, brothers and sisters, to break down barriers that bind. We're called
to be radical revolutionaries in building sometimes that which has been
destroyed and that which is absent from our lives."

Gamble, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, said that in
order to recognize the "community as a gift," Christians must let go of "our
faulty notions."

 "Notions that independence is the goal of life. That has to go, if we're
going to really live in community," she said in the Sheraton's Birmingham
Ballroom, the event's main venue. "We have to let go of the faulty notions
that the goal of life is to win, if we're going to live in community. We
have to let go of the notion that the goal of life is to control, if we're
going to live in community. ... We have to give up the idea that the goal of
life is to accumulate, ... if we're going to live in community."

With an estimated 2,600 homeless people on any given night just in
Birmingham, and another 30,000 at risk of becoming destitute, Gamble pointed
out that much work remains before God's gift of community can be realized.
She said 18 percent of Alabama's teenage girls have attempted suicide, and
one-quarter of all families in the southern state are touched by some form
of mental illness.

In 1998, 1,420 homeless children were enrolled in the Birmingham city
schools, Gamble said. Of those, 82 percent lived in shelters, 11 percent
lived in automobiles and 7 percent lived temporarily with relatives. She
said requests for food, shelter and assistance with utility bills have more
than doubled in her church in the past year.

"My point is this: If we want to live with the benefits of life in Christ,
we have got to do the work of life in Christ," she said. "I hope that ... in
the days and weeks ahead, you all will think very carefully about what it is
that you can do. Because you can do great things."

The Rev. Elias Morales said he is trying to link his North Park Presbyterian
Church with the Hispanic community in Toronto, Canada, which is affiliated
with the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

 The Hispanic mission church has started a pilot program in which members
learn job-related vocabulary in Spanish, get information about the Canadian
culture and about important legal and employment issues facing Hispanic
immigrants, and consult with Hispanics on healthcare.

"We are reaching out in that way to the refugee community, but also we are
trying intentionally to reach out to families that have been away from the
Christian community or the Christian experience," said Morales, whose
mission church has members from at least 15 different Latin and Central
American countries, including El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala. "They
probably had been Christians back home, but because of a lack of language,
lack of communication, they try to isolate themselves (in Toronto). So we
are reaching out to those families."

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