FERGUSON, MO. – When J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) put out the call for Presbyterians to come to St. Louis as part of the Hands and Feet initiative, Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville responded.
They planned a youth mission trip to St. Louis to spend a few days at General Assembly and a few more days serving with STL Urban Mission, an organization run out of First Presbyterian Church of Ferguson.
STL Urban Mission along with Amen St. Louis, a ministry of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church located in the Tower Grove South neighborhood of St. Louis, were two sites identified by the Office of the General Assembly to host mission teams in the year leading up to the General Assembly, as part of an effort to engage more deeply with the host city.
Doodle Harris, associate pastor at Highland Presbyterian Church, led a team of youth along with an adult sponsor to St. Louis on Saturday, June 16. They spent two days at with GA at the convention center learning about how the Presbyterian Church governs itself, and then they spent three days in Ferguson, Missouri, learning from the community and serving alongside key community partners with First Presbyterian Church of Ferguson and STL Urban Mission.
STL Urban Mission has secular and faith-based partners who work with their work teams. One partner is St. Louis County Public Works, who has a specific “Problem Properties” team. They take volunteer groups who help fix up properties that would otherwise be condemned by the city. On Tuesday, the team from Highland Presbyterian Church spent the day helping to clean out a house. This was requested by the homeowner’s daughter. Her mother was disabled and was not able to keep her house up. According to Debra Kricensky of St. Louis Public Works, these requests are the “best case scenario” because she can come with a team of volunteers to proactively work on a property.
The youth group spent the morning cleaning out the property so that the following day, contractors hired by Public Works could come in to bring the property up to code. There was a roll-off dumpster and the youth filled it up with items from the interior of the house and the garage. They also did some yard work and landscaping around the property.
Harris said that other pastors in Louisville had recommended STL Urban Mission to her, and she was glad to be able to align her youth group’s short term mission team to the larger work of the Hands and Feet initiative.
The history of racism in St. Louis and the more recent racial unrest in Ferguson is addressed by the leaders of STL Urban Mission. Duane Mazacavallo, a trustee at FPC Ferguson who oversees STL Urban Mission, provides an orientation to every group that visits. He shares about the history of “red-lining” the practice that segregated neighborhoods and limited home ownership for people of color. He shares maps that show how that worked in St. Louis. Harris said it was eye opening for her youth. Although they live in Louisville, which also has a history of racism and segregation, “It’s somehow easier to see and talk about when it’s not in your own city.” According to Harris, this is one of the benefits of a well-run short-term mission program.
The youth from Highland Presbyterian Church also spent a day tutoring local school children with an organization called The Soulfisher Ministries. This organization runs the Educate Now to Achieve Later (ENAL) after-school tutoring program. During the school year they provide tutors in the school. In the summer, the tutoring takes place at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which is just across the street from FPC Ferguson. The children come during summer on weekdays for tutoring, so they don’t fall behind in their classes, and they also get a hot meal. Most of the children receive free lunch during the school year, so this helps to keep their minds and bodies fed during the summer.
Overall, according to the youth and Harris, this was a very meaningful mission trip. They were able to learn about and support the work of the denomination while also engaging deeply and authentically in context appropriate ways with local partners in St. Louis. They are excited and hopeful to see this initiative grow and are already thinking about going to Baltimore in two years.