In Medford, Oregon, the students at Rogue Valley Adventist Academy have found a unique way of connecting with their local community. Here’s a story Brandon Kharns, associate pastor at the Medford Seventh-day Adventist Church, recently shared with us:
“I came to Medford almost a year ago and, of course, I was spending a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to create here. I was asking, ‘What’s needed here? What’s already in place?’ I really wanted to help create a culture that fully encompassed things that I feel are core to the Gospel and the ministry God wants for us. The nature of youth ministry is that kids eventually leave to other places, so I was thinking about what they could take with them. I want caring about other people and caring for other people to be a normal and natural part of their lives.
I was really blessed to inherit a very active youth program. When I got here there were regularly 25 or 30 kids showing up every Wednesday night. I knew I really wanted two things to be integrated into what we did together––worship and community service, but I was surprised to find how difficult it was to integrate community service. It’s not as easy as you’d think to find something you can do for three hours on a Wednesday night like that. Typical ideas like raking leaves or something can be great, but it’s also hard to do in the winter when it gets cold and dark so early. I also really wanted my teens to be connecting service with people rather than just manual labor, so I started calling around with some ideas. I called nursing homes and other places asking if we could show up, but nothing seemed to pan out. I called places I thought would be so stoked to have a group of teenagers come out, but for one reason or another it just didn’t work out.
My next thought was to reach out to the police department. I thought they would really know more about the needs of the community, so I booked an appointment with the community outreach officer at the local PD and asked the basic question, ‘What does this community really need? How can we partner with you?’ I expected he would say something like, ‘We’ll send an officer with you, and you can help clean up some parts of town,’ but instead I got a list of some local organizations that were already doing great things and a suggestion to connect with them. So, I did.
I ended up getting connected with the youth director at a place called ‘71 Five.’ They had this youth group-style program for kids that weren’t really in church – a lot of them had come in off of the street. They had a community outreach staff member that would go around and knock on doors and ask if there was anything they could do to help. He didn’t seem sure of how we might partner at first, but he said maybe we could just bring our kids down to play some sports with theirs. We kept talking and one thing that came up was like, ‘Oh man, my junior high kids are just so rambunctious and all we have for sports activities is our tiny parking lot. I wish we had something bigger.’ So, I said, ‘Hey! We have a school with a massive field, a big, beautiful campus, and a gym. Would you want to bring your kids out to our place? We have some fantastic, athletically gifted kids that love sports and could play with your middle school kids!’ I expected him to say, ‘No, that won’t work,’ but he was ecstatic!
The time we chose was right after school. None of the students really had to be there, so I was worried that none of them would show up. How many teenagers would say, ‘I’m going to volunteer my Wednesday afternoon to go be with a bunch of kids I don’t know?’
When the time came, only a couple of our kids were there. I got really nervous. I was like, ‘Man, if we have a horde of downtown kids showing up and none of ours come that’s going to look really bad.’ But in typical teenaged fashion, about ten minutes after they were supposed to be there, 25 or 30 kids came rushing down from the school building. They showed up!
Another thing I was worried about was just that our kids are so athletic. Somewhere around 90% of our student body are on our sports teams. They train for hours every day – sometimes even on Sundays. They work hard and do so well even against schools that are so much bigger than ours. We have a dedicated and gifted group of athletic teams. A lot of the middle school kids showing up that day weren’t really athletic at all – a lot of them never really run or play sports. I was worried they would just get smashed, but they all seemed to be out there playing together and having a good time. Afterwards, when we were all eating pizza together, I asked the leader of their group (who had been out there playing with them), ‘How was this interaction? Was it positive? Were my kids open?’ He said, ‘I cannot believe how accepting and inclusive your students were. My kids are so excited to be here. They feel like they really connected.’ Just by playing sports together those connections were made.
After that event, when we had cleaned everything up, some of our high school students decided to play volleyball. I was waiting on something, so my kids and I were just sitting on the bleachers watching them play. One of our top athletes turned and saw my son, who is in the third grade, and asked, ‘Hey, have you ever played volleyball?’ My son said no. He said, ‘Well, do you want to play with us?’ At first my son was like, ‘I won’t know what I’m doing,’ but the student said, ‘Come on, we’ll show you!’ He brought him down to play and it was awesome. Every once in a while, the ball would come to their side and everyone would stop everything, put my son in position, show him what to do, and then continue playing together. There wasn’t a single student groaning about it. They were so excited to teach him and include him in their game. I’m just super proud of these kids and what they’re doing.”
Thank you, Rogue Valley Academy students, for your witness. And thank you for the reminder to all of us that it’s not just what we do to bring Jesus into our communities – it’s how we do it.