Religion News: From a Distance

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Audi Barlow, director of children and youth formation for St. Paul’s. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

St. Paul’s young people continue to learn, socialize and serve

It’s a scenario all-too-familiar to business owners, non-profit directors, educators and professionals in this time of distancing: things were going so well, and then they weren’t. The same holds true for the faith community, said Audi Barlow, director of children and youth formation for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Ivy. 

“Things came to a screeching halt,” she said. Barlow, a long-time Crozet resident and veteran St. Paul’s staff member, had worked hard at reaching out to the young people in the congregation in a variety of ways, building over time a vibrant and cohesive group, based on fellowship, a desire to understand religious values, and service. She’d received her certificate of youth ministry in January, a designation that increased her understanding of her role, as well as expanding the number of colleagues around the country she could turn to for help.

That turned out to be a good thing, she said. At first, “I panicked,” she recalled. Then she reached out to colleagues, old and new. “We were all kind of in the same boat,” she said, “asking ourselves and each other, ‘What am I doing? What should I be doing? What can I do?’”

After a week or so, things began to click into place. “We asked ourselves a question that we should always be asking,” she said. “What does the future look like?” She was quick to understand that the future wasn’t going to look like the past, whether or not St. Paul’s resumed in-person services. She resolved that she would move forward, adjusting to the needs of her young community and their families, rather than adhering steadfastly to her idea of what the program should be.

Barlow said she wanted to share her experiences, not to draw attention to her successes, but to recognize the significant engagement of her young people during these unusual times. She also said she learned something about her own role that might be helpful to those who feel challenged, as she did, by the constant feeling that she wasn’t doing enough promotion of her programs. “I remembered what my doctor said when I was worried about my daughter not eating as a toddler,” she said. “He told me that my job was to provide the nourishing food, responding to her changing needs, and it was her job to eat it.” So Barlow set out to design the best programs possible for her young students.

Emmy Williams, with the help of Maggie the dog, made videos of different crafts for each of the Vacation Bible School themes. Her tambourine was to illustrate the them of worship. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Some elements of Barlow’s new on-line community worked especially well. Her younger children liked the “Church Days in PJs,” and she heard from parents that some of the children who became regular attendees were those who had been difficult to wake up and dress in time to get to the in-person services. “It warmed my heart to see them being so spontaneous,” she said. “They’d look around the screen and say, ‘Oh, there’s so-and-so.’ They were just so glad to see their friends.” 

Over time, she found that some of the children wanted some one-on-one time with her after the meeting, just as might have happened in person, to show her something in their home, or to let her know what was happening in their lives. “I coordinated this with the parents,” Barlow said. “They would stay in the background while we spoke.” One second grader had lost a grandparent and was comforted by the signs that neighbors had put in the yard to show support. 

“So, it wasn’t as though I was checking off a list every Sunday,” Barlow said. “It quickly became more and more responsive to what the children needed.”

Barlow said she struggled most with how best to serve her middle- and high-school students. The mother of three grown daughters, she understood some of the challenges to gathering this group via an online platform. Teenagers send images of themselves all the time, but mostly they’re distorted, made to be funny. “Some kids in this age group seem very confident,” she said. “The truth is that even the most popular among them have a great deal of self-consciousness. Imagine, at that age, having to deal with your friends seeing a close-up of your face on the screen.”

George Vavrik interprets “Turn,” one of the seven weekly themes of St. Paul’s vacation Bible school. Submitted.

Others were used to making exaggerated expressions of disdain on screen. “I had to have rules about this,” Barlow said, “so they wouldn’t be rolling their eyes or texting one another all through the meeting.” She connected with them through games like Pictionary and Kahoot and staged a talent show, sometimes surprising them with an electronic gift card for the winner.

Then came the summer. As the one responsible for vacation Bible school and service trips every year, Barlow saw this at first as a considerable dilemma. By then, though, she understood the online possibilities and instead of reducing the weeks involved in each, she expanded them. 

She had also learned a lot about the lives of St. Paul’s sons and daughters. “Don’t believe for a minute that they have more time than ever these days,” Barlow said. In the past, summer church activities had to compete with sports, camps, vacations and other seasonal pursuits. All these things are still around in a virtual form, she said, with parents embracing even more activities to make up for their family’s isolation.

Bible school online became a creative venture for Barlow and her students. They embarked on a study of the “Way of Love,” with a different theme for each of the seven weeks. She encouraged the students to express the themes according to their own interests and talents. George Vavrik, Barlow’s co-leader, was a 15-year-old, a dancer with extensive professional training in choreography: ballet, jazz and contemporary. He arranged, danced and filmed pieces based on the weekly themes. Lilly Kate Simmers, an avid reader, filmed herself reading a story for younger children related to each week’s theme. Simmers is a shrewd judge of children’s literature, having three younger sisters. Emmy Williams, who loves making crafts, created a handmade symbol for each theme, and filmed the making of each of her seven projects so others could follow along.

Lilly Kate Simmers recorded herself reading children’s stories, all based on the weekly theme. Submitted.

St. Paul’s traditionally sends a service team to North Philadelphia, where they work with St. James, a tuition-free Episcopal middle school that accepts students from the impoverished neighborhood surrounding it. St. James students normally are a year or two below grade level, but with intervention in a variety of ways, they graduate at or above grade level. The school also serves as a community hub, and summer service students help organize and stock the food pantry and get the school ready for its fall opening. 

How to provide support from a distance? Barlow decided to have her students take a deep dive each week into the systemic causes of poverty. One week, for example, they studied food deserts; another, barriers to home ownership; another, the history of the school. A handful of students had been to St. James last summer, and they were able to speak about the experience. Students assembled a collection of school supplies for each student, and sent them off, along with posters and a video welcoming the middle-schoolers back and wishing them well.

Barlow was disappointed not to give the students the whole experience of North Philly, but she was able to give them at least a taste, she said. At the end of the project, she and her class celebrated with the quintessential Philadelphia treat, Philly cheese steaks from Sal’s, at a distance, of course, she said, but at least together. 

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