Twelve visitors from Michigan embrace ‘contextual ministry’ in NW Philly

More than 1,000 miles from home, a group of 12 teens and chaperones arrived this week at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown (FPCG) to “practice Philadelphia.”

Since 2006, FPCG has offered a week-long service learning project designed to expose young adults from across the country to the personal and spiritual rewards of working in an urban ministry.

Known as the Philadelphia Urban Ministry Institute, or PUMI, it hosts one to two groups of up to 20 participants each summer.

Visitors from the Great Lakes State

This year, FPCG is hosting seven high school students and five parent-chaperones from Marquette, Mich.

During the week, participants balance service with sightseeing, and work in a variety of settings in and around Germantown. Christian Heyer-Rivera says the experience is designed to create a “contextual ministry.”

Heyer-Rivera, FPCG’s director of Christian Education, notes that unlike other service programs, which have specifically defined goals — such as building a house — the PUMI experience is more experiential in nature.

This is reinforced by having participants work alongside existing community organizations.

“We saw it as a perfect way to serve,” says Heyer-Rivera. “Instead of doing for, we do with.”

PUMI’s participants this year are from the First Presbyterian Church of Marquette, a city of approximately 21,000 residents that is located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the shore of Lake Superior.

Leading the group is Jenny Cammarata, the church’s director of youth programs. She says she first heard about the PUMI experience several years ago while in Philadelphia for an Association of Presbyterian Church Educators conference, It’s been on her mind ever since.

Fundraising for the journey

Last year, Cammarata’s group began fundraising in earnest. They organized a variety of bake sales and rummage sales to secure the $5,600 necessary to make the trip.

Bolstered by a $1,500 donation from her church’s mission fund, they rented two vans and spent 17 hours driving, with a night spent at the Common Ground Community Church in North Lima, Ohio.

In addition to shepherding her team, Cammarata also leads morning devotions and nightly reflections, which are a key component of PUMI, allowing participants to contextualize their efforts via discussion and look for larger implications.

It was during one such devotional that Cammarata hit upon the phrase “practicing Philadelphia.” Asked to expand upon this, she explains that it is found in the establishment of meaningful community relationships — with humility, and without judgment.

“We walk alongside them with respect for the culture,” she says.

Some green sightseeing

On Wednesday, Heyer-Rivera led a series of environmentally-themed outings designed to expose participants to unique ecology of Philadelphia, particularly that of the city’s Northwest section.

Concluding with a hike along the Wissahickon Creek, participants also attended the Visitors Center at the Philadelphia Waterworks to learn about the Schuylkill River’s watersheds and the protection of water sources.

It’s part of a trial program that Heyer-Rivera is testing this year. His ultimate goal is presenting a separate “green” PUMI experience.

He suggests that PUMI 2012 is only “greener” in comparison, but this year’s participants develop a taste for urban gardening and organic food production by volunteering at Weaver’s Way Farm, two acres of growing space located in the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown.

Working at Weaver’s Way Farm

After a brief tour of the facility, participants are coached in their tasks by Farm Manager Rick Rigutto, one of three full-time employees at the year-round operation.

“It’s July on an organic farm. It’s weeding time,” he says, standing before an overgrown leek bed.

Volunteers are not an unfamiliar sight as Weaver’s Way Co-op members regularly work here. However, Rigutto observes that outside groups such as PUMI often opt for the organization’s educational offerings.

“They usually approach our educational team,” he says, “so I’m glad they approached our production team.”

Heyer-Rivera seeks to expand the FPCG/Weaver’s Way relationship into an ongoing, “organic” partnership that reinforces PUMI’s experiential ethos.

“It’s not a one-and-done thing,” he surmises.

What do they think of Philly?

Concluding their efforts on the farm on Wednesday, PUMI students and chaperones gather around one of minivans rented for the trip. They begin to offer their impressions of the experience and of Philadelphia as a whole.

By far, the most positive experiences they mention stem from interacting with the children enrolled in FPCG’s “Freedom School,” more properly known as the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom School Site.

Rev. Kevin Porter of FPCG said that the K-8 school began in 2010. It grew out of a preexisting day camp held at the school for nearly two decades. Porter said that the purpose of the camp is “education for empowerment,” with reading being at the center of the syllabus.

“My favorite part was seeing the kids,” says Liesel Demeuse, a high-schooler born and raised in Marquette. “They’re teaching me things about the city, and they’re teaching me how to dance.”

Her mother Heidi, a chaperone on the trip, worked with older students at the Freedom School.

“I wanted to challenge myself,” she said, knowing that working with older children, who have more fully-formed personalities and life experiences, would force her to grow. “I saw not only enthusiasm, but love, and it was sincere.”

Cultural differences

Heidi Demeuse, a Cherry Hill, NJ native, recognizes the lifestyle differences that separate the East Coast from the American heartland, so she was unsurprised about attitudinal proclivities attendant to life in Philadelphia.

Not so for sophomore Sarah Farnsworth, whose appreciation for Philadelphia’s charm began on Sunday in line at Pat’s Steaks in South Philly where “they were screaming at us.”

“On the street, no one smiles and no one waves here,” she continues, noting a friendlier Marquette populace. “I wasn’t used to that.”

Andrea Olson, soon to be a ninth-grader at Marquette High, offers a succinct impression of her temporary home.

“It’s still a gross big city,” she says, “but it’s beautiful.”

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