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Next up: a new generation

It’s time to see the future for what it is, suggests Wayne Meisel, and it’s not about us — or at least — most of the “us” who fill Presbyterian pews.

In his address to the NEXT conference in late February, Meisel referenced words of the late Robert F. Kennedy: “ ‘Our answer is the world’s only hope; it is to rely on youth. The world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, an appetite for adventure over the love of ease.’ ”

To put it in different terms, this one Presbyterian teaching elder said that it’s time for those who put such stock on elderliness to stop acting their age.

From his home within the venerable community of Princeton Theological Seminary, Meisel constantly is figuring how to tap the energy and to channel the enthusiasm resident in the young people of America. A founding board member of Teach for America and a chief architect of AmeriCorps, the centerpiece of Bill Clinton’s national service initiatives, he has lived his vision on a large stage. Not a partisan, he was appointed by George H.W. Bush to serve on the Commission for National and Community Service (later renamed the Corporation for National Service).

More recently he founded the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, COOL, a national student service movement.

One specific impact of these past few decades’ work has been the establishment of service expectation for high school students. “If someone wants to get into a select college or university, they better have a long resume of service activities and accomplishments,” he said.

But one element missing today, he said, is the convergence of faith with service.

The separation is so pervasive that he calls it “the great divorce.” He elaborated: “With notable exceptions, the church is not leading the community service movement and with notable exceptions the young adults that serve and lead are not centering their engagement and activism through the church.”

In fact, he pointed out that of 100,000 full-time volunteer opportunities filled annually by young adults only about 2,000 are placed through faith-based programs like Lutheran Volunteer Corps and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Young Adult Volunteer Program.

So the message here is that we need to engage in the community service and social justice movement that this generation has brought to the world,” he suggested. “We do not need to compete with it or control it. Instead we must meet it with our whole self and demonstrate authentic integrity as we connect the message of the gospel to the lives of those who are serving.”

What we need to do is what comes so naturally to Presbyterians: to show hospitality. Given that thousands of college students and graduates descend upon cities to serve the needy, and given that so many of them quickly find themselves lost and lonely in their new environment, Presbyterians could mobilize to do what they do best.

By being present in their lives, even if it is just to greet them with a cup of coffee at the airport or by inviting them to dinner on Thursday night, it is an act of hospitality that offers us a chance to live out our faith and to walk with them in theirs.”

His appeal was followed with a warning: “If we do not invite them, if we do not seek them out, if we do not make church relevant, if we do not share our story of commitment to the same cause that they have, we will not only fail to capture their imagination, but we will also fail in our roles as Christians to share God’s love and to be present in their lives.”