Pentecost Offering sends children, youth and young adults out to change the world

May 14, 2024 by by Emily Enders Odom

Supporting the annual offering lets young people know they are an integral part of Christ’s church

Originally published on Presbyterian News Service. 

One van, five days.

That’s all it took to change the worldview of six young people. That, plus three committed adult leaders, a whole lot of faith and one big DREAAM.

DREAAM, an acronym for Driven to Reach Excellence and Academic Achievement for Males, is a program designed to reach, teach and invest in African American boys at risk and to walk alongside them and their families beginning at the early age of 3 until they reach the age of 24.

Now in its ninth year, DREAAM was the brainchild of Tracy Dace, an educator and tireless advocate for at-risk youth and DREAAM’s founder and chief executive officer. DREAAM, a ministry of the First Presbyterian Church of Champaign, Illinois, operates in partnership with the congregation and its members as a separate 501(c)3 organization.

Dace shares, “Creativity is one of the core values of DREAAM. We reach, teach and empower through building creative partnerships with area congregations to achieve our program’s goals.”

In addition to serving in and with the local community, the program also goes on the road, exposing young DREAAMers to the unlimited potential that awaits them.

Last fall, DREAAMers travelled to Niagara Falls and New York City in one van within five days.

Such transformational experiences, are made possible, in part, through the Pentecost Offering, one of the PC(USA)’s four Special Offerings.

Not only do gifts to the Pentecost Offering benefit children at risk through the “Educate a Child, Transform the World” national initiative, but the Offering also supports the Office of Presbyterian Youth and Triennium and the Young Adult Volunteer Program

A hallmark of this shared offering is that 40% of it is retained by individual congregations for local ministries, while the remaining 60% is used to support children at risk, youth and young adults through ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Although the Pentecost Offering may be taken anytime, most congregations receive it on Pentecost Sunday, which this year falls on May 19.

For the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) and staff person for the PC(USA)’s “Educate a Child, Transform the World initiative, DREAAM’s road trip last year connects beautifully with the 2024 Pentecost Offering theme, “I Am Coming to You” (John 14:18b).

Johnson said, “We are excited to hear about the ongoing ways that DREAAM continues to be innovative in providing education and engagement opportunities for urban youth. DREAAM’s innovative teaching and mentoring activities exemplify what the Pentecost Offering and its emphasis on children at risk is all about.”

While in New York City, the DREAAMers engaged with a homelessness program.

“It was interesting to observe them helping in that space with confidence and comfortability,” said Dace. “They were caring young servant leaders and more excited to continue serving their neighbors without a home in Champaign.”

Dace added that “traveling is life-changing and builds a leader mindset. Through the college visit, mission project and hours of sightseeing, the goal was for them to experience a world of possibilities and to spark more ideas and dreams about a positive future. We teach and empower DREAAMers to dream big!”

Called to transform systems that perpetuate injustice

Traveling to New York City also changed the lives and worldviews of Juliet Owuor and Maggie Collins, who now live mere inches apart from one another in a small apartment with two other young adults.

Owuor — a native of Kenya, whose family eventually settled in Lubbock, Texas — and Collins, who calls Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home, were both commissioned last summer to serve as part of the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program.

After staying in her hometown of Lubbock for both her undergraduate and now graduate studies in environmental engineering at Texas Tech University, Owuor now says “the YAV program gave me the freedom to try something new without as much risk, like being in New York City where I wouldn’t be alone but where I knew I would have to learn how the subway system worked. To be here, I knew I had to let go of everything. I knew if I wanted something different, I would have to do something different.”

For Owuor, the “something different” that was just the right fit at the right time for her was the PC(USA)’s YAV program, an ecumenical, faith-based year of service lived out in sites across the U.S. and around the world.

In addition to its focus on national and international service, the YAV program — which has been changing the lives of young people ages 19–30 for nearly three decades — also emphasizes living in intentional Christian community, spiritual formation and vocational discernment.

Young adults like Owuor and Collins seek to transform not only themselves, but also the systems that perpetuate injustice in the U.S. and across the globe.

Collins said that she was initially attracted to the YAV program “because of the way that it gives young people the opportunity to live across the United States and the world in order to explore their passion and faith in a unique way.”

“I wanted to give myself some time to discern what I wanted to pursue in life, whether that is further schooling or jumping into the workforce,” she said.

Because of Collins’ strong commitment to the church’s role in advocating for peace, she was placed at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, where she had previously served as a summer fellow  during her undergraduate years at the University of Richmond. Her double major in leadership studies and French has served her well in her current role, as has her faith formation at Highland Presbyterian Church.

Owuor’s foundation in the PC(USA) began soon after her family moved to the U.S. from Kenya, when her father’s cousin told them to visit a Presbyterian church in Oxford, Ohio, for food and resources. Although the family moved several times before settling in Texas, they never forgot the kindness of that first Presbyterian congregation.

“We would continue to find a Presbyterian church no matter where we moved to,” she said. “When we found Grace Presbyterian Church in Lubbock, we got that same family sense. Then, when I stayed in town for college, I got more involved in the church, was confirmed, and later became a ruling elder.”

Owuor said that being an elder changed the way she saw church.

“I got to see what it really takes to have a church functioning — electing people, making decisions for your church,” she said. “It’s different from other denominations. When we have a problem that’s specific to us, we get to decide how to solve it.”

Within the YAV program, Owuor was appointed to a new pilot program with the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP). The position was created to provide the YAV with missional experiences that would foster direct engagement in the work of anti-poverty ministry.

Although daunted at first by her assignment, Owuor said that she didn’t realize how much she had already learned until she put it into practice.

“I got to see real organizations and real people, which served to solidify SDOP’s unique mission, purpose and target audience,” she said. “I saw that we weren’t just throwing money at people; we’re helping people not to be scared.”

Both Owuor and Collins are grateful for the support that the church provides to the YAV program.  

“When donors give generously to the Pentecost Offering, it proves that our church and its members really want to empower young people and bring them into the church,” Collins said. “It goes beyond just words and sends a message to young people that there is advocacy work to be done within the church and we would like them to be a part of it.”

Bilingual youth conference ‘When Did We See You?’ was made possible through the Pentecost Offering

Not far from Collins’ home church, 17-year-old Hector Cardenas, a senior at SandHoke Early College High School in Raeford, North Carolina, told his friends that getting onto “an ambulance bed and being picked up to be placed inside of the vehicle” was his favorite activity.

At a 2023 youth conference, that is.

Last April, Cardenas was one of 85 youth, ages 11 to 22, and 20 adult chaperones who gathered at the Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana de Fayetteville (North Carolina), for a daylong conference titled “When Did We See You?”| “¿Cuándo Te Vimos?.”

The unique event — which attracted participants from five Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations in the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina and one church in the Presbytery of New Hope — was conducted in both English and Spanish using the event planning guide available through the office of Presbyterian Youth and Triennium (PYT), which also provided the organizers with generous grant support.

Offering ways to bring Presbyterian youth together is one of the primary objectives of PYT. To support congregations and mid councils in programming such events as “¿Cuándo Te Vimos?,” PYT has published four free online resource guides with the Matthew 25-inspired theme “When Did We See You?,” so that youth and their leaders across the PC(USA) can contextualize the theme and make it their own.

“The ‘When Did We See You?’ resources were originally intended to be a part of a new endeavor called PYT BEYOND,” said Gina Yeager-Buckley, associate for PYT. “This program is a way to expand the reach of the excellent content, learnings and conversations that happen at the Triennium but can really be experienced everywhere. BEYOND is a way to open the doors on the event and welcome in so many others; and, more importantly, to share and reshare an important gospel message about faith grounded in and surrounded by justice, awareness and faithfulness.” 

Among the Pentecost Offering’s enthusiastic supporters is Jerusalén Martínez Zarco, who has served as associate for Youth Ministry for the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina for the past four years. A native of Mexico where her parents were medical missionaries, Martínez heard God’s call to work with children at a very young age.

“My ministry started with playing music, but I also worked on the medical side, serving with my parents in the rural areas and helping them by bathing the kids, giving them what they needed and teaching them guitar songs,” she said. “I also started a youth conference and invited all my middle school friends to come to church. They really enjoyed it.”

Her passion for youth ministry only continued to grow after the family moved to the U.S. in 2014 when her father was called as pastor of the Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana de Fayetteville, where the “¿Cuándo Te Vimos?” conference was held.

Because the presbytery youth council that Martínez staffs was charged with planning and organizing the one-day conference, she counted on both resources and funding support from the national church.

“At the time the [2022] Triennium was going to happen, our youth were so excited to go, and it was canceled,” she said. “So, I asked myself, ‘What’s another thing we can do? Let me figure it out. I’m pretty sure that PYT has materials they can provide to us.’ That’s how it started.”

Martínez begins every planning process by asking the youth what they want and need in a program. The group quickly identified mental health — especially teenage suicide — as a key issue to be explored at the conference.

“Mental health in the Hispanic population is often overlooked,” she said. “And sometimes we’re not too comfortable asking for help when there is a situation in the family. There’s stigma.”

In addition to providing participants an opportunity to hear and respond in small groups to the keynote speaker, the Rev. Gedeon Cortez of Mexico City, the conference also offered two sessions with a choice of three workshops in each.

They also explored together how to serve the church and the community in a variety of ways, while learning about the many opportunities available to them for study and service.

Cardenas, who is a member of the Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana and the presbytery youth council, is already busy both studying and serving. In early college, he is working on an associate degree in science, after which he hopes to do a two-year promise program with free tuition before transferring to a university to complete his bachelor’s.

Because English had been a struggle not only for Cardenas but also for Martínez, she was especially pleased that the bilingual model for the conference was successful.

“We had the songs and the Scripture in both English and Spanish,” she said. “It was amazing to see that combination coming together to help them see and understand everything in a different way.”

As Martínez looks to the future, both the presbytery’s as well as her own plan to incorporate ministry into a career in the medical field, she’s considering whether the youth council might again hold conferences like this on a regular basis, perhaps every two years.

Yeager-Buckley and her colleagues can’t wait.

“Presbyteries are valuable partners in sharing new resources,” she said. “Our greatest joy outside of advocating for youth in the church and the world is to work so closely with our mid councils.  They are a direct pipeline to faith formation of young people.”

Cardenas said that it’s important that Presbyterians and others give money to support programs like “Cuándo Te Vimos?” through the annual Pentecost Offering.

“It gives us the opportunity to bring churches together that do not have the capabilities of doing things like this — experiencing new activities, learning and meeting new people,” he said. “I think funding these events also brings our presbyteries closer because it gives us a goal and a mission to be selfless and share these experiences with others.”

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By giving to the Pentecost Offering, your congregation participates in helping our children, youth, and young adults grow up to proclaim with the Psalmist, "O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds."