When General Assembly Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II, began touting his “Hands and Feet” initiative at last winter’s Montreat College Conference and “Hands and Feet” Manager Andrew Yeager-Buckley talked up the service/learning opportunities of the initiative, the UKirk campus ministry at Michigan State University (MSU) immediately signed on.
A group of MSU students and their campus minister, Neil Myer, traveled to St. Louis this week—the first of what Nelson hopes will be many groups to go to the host city for the 223rd General Assembly (2018) to engage in-depth with communities in need through Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) community outreach ministries in Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery.
“We don’t want the Presbyterians to be simply another convention that comes to town, meets and spends some money, and then leaves without engaging the people and communities there in a sustained effort to support our Presbyterian brothers and sisters in making an impact,” Nelson explains.
So how did the inaugural “Hands and Feet” engagement by the MSU UKirk group go?
“My hands are dirty,” said one student during a debriefing break late in the day May 9.
“My feet are tired,” added another.
“But maybe that’s what it’s all about,” one young man responded.
The group had spent the morning learning about the many “food deserts” in St. Louis, where access to affordable and nutritious food—particularly fresh fruits and vegetables—is a daily struggle. Then, under the supervision of the Reverend Peggy Harris, a sprightly retired United Church of Christ minister, they helped prepare a community garden for spring planting at the St. Agnes Senior Community.
The St. Agnes garden is one of 200 community gardens in St. Louis supported by the nonprofit Gateway Greening. Harris, who resides at St. Agnes, applied for and received a modest grant from Gateway Greening to install the community garden. One of the grant requirements is that residents put in thirty hours of volunteer labor each month to maintain the garden.
“These young people are such a boon,” Harris said, “because most of our residents are not able to work much. I hope they learn the joy of volunteering,” she added, “and the joy their volunteering brings to others. They did more in one morning than I could do in a month!”
This initial “Hands and Feet” foray was coordinated for the MSU UKirk group by Amen/Saint Louis, a multifaceted community outreach ministry of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church. Gateway Greening is one of twenty partner organizations that works with Amen/Saint Louis, said the Reverend Jillian Embry, who a few months ago became Amen/Saint Louis’ first paid staffer after the ministry ran for its first five years on purely volunteer labor.
What Amen/Saint Louis does fits perfectly with the theology behind the “Hands and Feet” initiative, Embry said. “Our goal is not just hands-on volunteer work to meet needs,” she explained, “but to provide context on how systemic issues in the city create and impact those needs.” She said groups like MSU UKirk should understand “why there is a need for these ministries, to not just do the work but to understand why they’re doing the work.”
Myer said the theological reflection that is central to the “Hands and Feet” initiative is key to the success of the fledgling program. “I like the aspect of ‘Hands and Feet’ that Katie Cannon calls the ‘living laboratory,’” he said. “The exposure to many different ministries here in St. Louis will help these students discern what faith in action looks like at MSU and beyond,” he said. “How do our actions here relate to what we believe as Christians and Presbyterians?”
In the afternoon of May 9, the group traveled to the International Institute of St. Louis, the only officially sanctioned refugee resettlement and service operation in the city. Housed in a former Catholic girls’ school, the sprawling facility houses a staff of more than 100 and many classrooms and other learning and service areas. In 2016, the International Institute of St. Louis resettled more than 1,200 refugees and provided a broad array of services to countless others—from English classes to a “store” where refugees can purchase low-cost goods, to the Global Farm, where refugees (many of whom come from agrarian countries) can learn to grow profitable crops for the St. Louis market. The group was to visit the farm later in the week.
The UKirkers spent the afternoon sorting through merchandise and stocking the shelves of the International Institute of St. Louis store, while also making space for another load of donated supplies that was arriving by truck later in the day. “Different people can help in different ways,” one student said. “This is one way we could help.”
The previous evening the group participated in Churches on the Streets, an ecumenical family dinner outreach program to the homeless. “One woman we served was so patient in waiting and thankful,” said Anthony “A.J.” Hill, a theatre major at MSU. “It makes me want to follow up—to come back here again and see how she’s doing.”
Elizabeth Drerup said she loved playing with the children who came. “I learned that all children love to play and be with others,” she said, adding that the sustained effort envisioned in the “Hands and Feet” initiative is critical. “It’s really important that the church is here on a consistent basis,” Drerup said, “that people know we care when we are here and when we are not.”
Office of the General Assembly staffer Yeager-Buckley said he hopes many other groups will catch the “Hands and Feet” vision. “When space is created for community to be created and gather,” he said, “walls come down.”
The “Hands and Feet” initiative will be formally launched in July at the 2017 Big Tent gathering on the campus of Washington University. Many service and learning opportunities through “Hands and Feet” will surround the 223rd General Assembly (2018) in St. Louis, the 224th General Assembly (2020) in Baltimore, and the 225th General Assembly (2022) in Columbus, Ohio.