Service Projects Prove Most Impactful for 75 Participants
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20 (NIV)
Love Austin 2022 was last weekend and 75 kids in grades 6 through 12 bonded in ways not possible the past couple of years.
“We’ve not been able to make deep connections during the pandemic,” said Student Ministry Leader Jake Pluenneke. “Our groups have been super impacted by the pandemic and have not experienced all the social and emotional learning that comes with being in school. We’ve missed the big transitions from grade school to middle school, and from middle school to high school. This weekend was a return; I got to see our student groups really bond and form in healthy ways. It was so fun to watch our students blossom.”
“This year was our first Love Austin in two years, and it felt so good to be back,” said senior participant Anna McClellan, who last participated in a Love Austin weekend her sophomore year, exactly a month before the lockdown. “Although my group — the 12th grade girls — was a lot smaller than normal, just being able to worship and share God’s love with some of my closest friends and our amazing city was so good.”
Love Austin 2022 started Friday night with a pizza and celebratory party on the fourth floor of the Fellowship and Education Building. Covenant’s older kids participated in volleyball, basketball, foosball, and just generally ran around and enjoyed each other’s company. The first evening came to a close with worship. Freshman boys group leader Will Rodenbusch shared his testimony.
“In a former life, I preached regularly,” Will said. “I have done volunteer youth ministry for 18 years. For a decade of that, I got to preach twice a month or so. It is somehow very different from regular teaching. My teaching involves lots of questions and is often ad hoc. Preaching feels more like taking people on a journey with a specific destination.”
Will spoke about how God’s love changed everything for him, Jake said. “He shared how, just out of college, he had no idea what his life was about. He had no goals; he was lost and lonely. God met him in that moment and was able to open his heart and save his life.”
Jake said Will’s testimony shaped the small group discussions and curriculum for the weekend. When asked if Will planned his testimony around Jake’s theme, Jake replied, “It was serendipity. We wanted a familiar face, someone that the kids see and can relate to, rather than bringing in a guest leader that none of us knew. When I gave him the scripture, he said ‘I’m gonna tell my story. It perfectly lines up’. He is such an incredible storyteller.”
Will laughed, “It may have set the tone for other groups. Our group of boys is not known for staying on point or holding a steady tone. I do think that the words meant more to them coming from me because of our relationship. I try to play the long game with youth ministry. This retreat helped us make some progress as a group and hopefully advanced their individual faith journeys as well.”
While worship and games kicked off the amazing weekend, Jake said the Saturday service projects, set up by Mission Director Whitney Bell, definitely had the most impact. The high school kids served local refugee families and helped with a Texas Reach Out Ministry project.
“I reached out to four families that our refugee ministry has recently worked with. They are all fairly new arrivals, so I asked them if we could bless them with groceries,” Whitney said. “Refugee Services of Texas provided our four groups with lists, and I sent them to the HEB closest to the families’ apartments — HEBs that the kids were not familiar with in different parts of town. I thought it would be a cool experience for the kids to shop using a specific list of the things that a family from Afghanistan would want.
“This project was good because the kids were shopping in a different area, good because they were buying things they weren’t familiar with — like ginger root and whole fish with eyes, good because they each had a budget and a $100 gift card. That’s not very much, especially with inflation, so it was a challenge to stay within the budget. I encouraged them to consider how much things cost — for example, a honey crisp apple compared to a gala apple. It was also good to go to an apartment building and knock on a door and meet the families they were shopping for. I think it was a really good activity for them.”
Anna said the girls learned a lot. “It was super cool but kinda crazy. I look at prices when I go grocery shopping, but oftentimes I just get whatever my mom or dad get and move on. With this we didn’t just grab and go, we had to look and find the cheapest possible option so we could get the maximum amount of things. It was hard balancing that because in some cases, we had to get less of something than what was requested. Overall, it was super great being able to serve our community in that way. I didn’t even realize that sort of service was needed, but it’s so great that we have local services that help refugee families in that way!”
“There were lots of really holy moments when the groups delivered the bags,” Jake said. “They got to meet the families and see their homes. It was neat to hear them talk about it afterward; it was clearly an impactful experience.”
Texas Reach Out Ministries
In the second high school project, two groups created welcome baskets for Texas Reach Out Ministries (TROM), an organization that provides transitional housing for those recently released from prison. TROM has experienced a lot of growth. The increased demand for housing placement has created a great need for welcome kits. “When someone arrives at a TROM home, they truly just have the clothes they walked into prison with — no toothbrush, no deodorant, nothing,” Whitney said.
“We got a $100 gift card and we had to see how many welcome packages we could put together,” said freshman girls leader Beth Feger. “Each package had sheets, a blanket and pillow, towels and washcloths, toothpaste and a toothbrush. The girls were so thoughtful trying to put together as many welcome kits as they could. Jake gave us a gift card for lunch. When I told the girls, ‘It looks like we’re gonna be a little short to make five kits,’ the girls gave up part of their lunches.”
(This group didn’t have a volunteer bringing them lunch. Instead, they had Visa gift cards specifically for their lunches. The group downgraded their lunch plans; each girl saved $5 to add to the baskets.)
Beth said the conversations afterward were insightful. “We talked about how much we take for granted, how often we don’t think about how much we or our parents are spending on the things we get, how easy it is throw stuff into your shopping cart. We barely think about the difference between $25 and $10.
“When we were checking out and I saw the number getting higher, I started getting stressed out and I was getting snappy with the girls,” Beth recalled. “I thought this is what it’s like for lots of moms every day. It was a really good lesson.”
The lesson for the freshmen girls went deeper, as they connected their feelings with what they’d heard in worship the previous night. “In Will’s testimony, he talked about our identity being in Christ. Rather than putting our identity in school, sports, or a boyfriend or girlfriend, when we put our identity in Christ, we have a new identity. We talked about the people we were serving who have been in prison. When they come out, they don’t have an identity like work or school. But we all have Christ. We can put our identity in Him and that is amazing.”
Austin Voices for Education and Youth
The middle school students helped at Austin Voices for Education and Youth (AVEY). The organization originally was planning to have the kids help beautify Webb Middle School — work in the garden and pick up trash — but when Covenant had so many kids willing to serve, AVEY added a mobile food pantry.
Jake said that Webb’s butterfly garden was a mess due to the winter freeze. The kids did a lot of pruning in the garden. They also picked up trash near the cafeteria and in the school’s outdoor spaces. The Covenant kids then helped with a drive-through food pantry, with included a book drive and opportunities for neighbors to get a Covid vaccine. The best part for the kids, according to Jake, was finding the perfect books. “The kids loved finding the right books for kids coming through. It was fun seeing our kids meet a 7-year-old girl, and then discuss the right book for her.
“Our kids also realized how fortunate they are,” Jake said. “We toured the middle school, and it seemed to click that they go to nice schools. It was a good way to rally around the needs and really step up and serve that community.”
The most fun event was a toss-up, Jake said. “Seeing all 75 of our people together bowling, playing in one space, was just great. But playing murder in the dark on Saturday night was fun, too. The kids went absolutely nuts.”
The game is like hide-and-seek in the dark, basically “organized chaos,” Jake said. “One of the classes is a group of taggers, and they tag people in the dark and you have to guess who is tagging you. Most of the time the kids don’t even care who the tagger is, they just are in the dark scaring each other. Leaders scare the kids, too!”
An unexpected outing for the freshman boys was a soccer game. “One beautiful thing about Love Austin is that our kids, who are so busy with extra-curricular activities, can come to Love Austin and leave for soccer or baseball or band,” Jake said. “At one point, two of our ninth grade boys were playing in a soccer game against each other. One was a goalie and the other was on offense. I guess they were talking smack to each other. Their whole group went to watch.”
Will further explained. “After our service project we went and watched the McCallum vs. Navarro game. It was a great game, and our students had some great touches. The big win was that we were integrating their school world with our community. For most of our students, home and school and church and sports and arts are all separate and never overlap. The more we can integrate those, the closer we get to the mission of our church.”
The Love Austin weekend was a reminder of the relationships forged — both old and new.
Said Anna of the senior girls, “I think we’re so tight-knit because many of us have grown up in the church together, and all of us are so open to welcoming new members into our group, and even re-welcoming old ones. I’m honestly not even sure I could tell you why, but there is something super special about the sisterhood that we share. We all walk our own paths but are also able to lift each other up and root for each other along the way. I also can’t go without mentioning our fabulous leaders, Ann and Lindsey. Even our former leader, Dani, too. They have all helped mold us into the people we are and have shared their faith with us and helped us grow our relationships with God. They also put up with our crazy shenanigans and let us be our 100 percent authentic selves.”
Beth invited all the freshman and sophomore girls and leaders to stay at her house. “Every single one of them was piled up on the couch — seven girls and four leaders. It was so fun to see them being kids. They were silly and goofy,” she said, adding, “They have really turned a corner this year, and truly become awesome young women. I love it how they look out for each other and laugh together.”
Will reflected on the students, too. “It is easy to forget how malleable the lives of students are. One word to a student at the right moment can make all the difference. I have the advantage of still being friends with men I invested in 20 years ago when they were teenagers. I have had the chance to hear from them over beers what moments in our relationship made a difference and how our group filled needs for them. I tend to think in terms of the future, so my favorite part of leading is knowing that our guys will eventually grow up and that somehow these interactions will shape that future.
“All that to say, God is great, and He is doing great things in our ministry right now,” Will continued. “I am praying that God calls us into some uncomfortable and radical decisions to serve the youth in our community. Covid hit youth spiritual and mental health hard. The kids in our neighborhood schools are looking for hope and grace and truth and love. We need to gamble with our resources in an attempt to deliver the hope and grace and truth and love of Jesus to them. I believe they are ready to hear if we can earn the right to be heard.”
At the end of the weekend, Jake was thankful; he felt blessed and happy. “It’s a logistical nightmare, but we have such an incredible committee and team, and they make my job easy. We had 18 different leaders helping out, more than 44 meal volunteers, and 10 hosts open their homes to let the kids take over for the weekend. All our leaders gave up a three-day weekend. Having such a great team makes it fun and enjoyable, and it lets me do the contact work, which I love.”
This was Jake’s fifth Love Austin. He participated in three as the Student Ministry intern; he participated in a daylong getaway as a director last year, and in the Love Austin comeback this past weekend.
“Jake is the best!” Will said.
“Jake is so good at relating to the kids,” Beth said.
“It was the best weekend yet!” Jake said. “It was a great restart to this type of activity. It’s been a long time since our students have been able to spend this much time together.”
Not missing a beat, Jake said, “God was in it all, over it all and through it all.”
Covenant Student Ministry is gearing up for summer camps and the largest confirmation class ever. Check out all that is going on at covenant.org/youth.