By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – What follows is part 2 of sharing some of my favorite stories (which have been updated/abridged in this article) that I wrote for “Mission in the Mitten” during Bishop Satterlee’s  first term in office. Choosing is difficult because there are so many good stories to tell. But I hope the ones I’ve chosen will refresh and inspire. 

Young Boxers Find Self-Worth (2016)

I spent an afternoon at Zion Lutheran Church, Saginaw, which hosts The Saginaw Boxing Club. The boxing club is a year-round program that promotes discipline and hard work, while aiming for participants to not only learn the craftsmanship of boxing, but to gain a sense of pride and self-worth. The club’s mission is to be “a nonprofit organization that offers physical and mental training to youth and adults of Saginaw free of charge in the art of boxing and self-discipline”.

With a large gymnasium that saw less and less use over the years and with a commitment to its changing neighborhood, Zion took on the opportunity to be the club’s home. This has given the club consistency and roots. It has given Zion a tangible way to demonstrate its commitment to the neighborhood.

Kids and young adults participating in the program find Zion to be a safe, welcoming place where they can feel part of a community. Some young people find boxing to be a way to unleash their emotions in a controlled environment. Some box because they like to do sports and this is one sport that they can afford or one for which they’re skilled.

Young boxer Jeremy Olivarez (left) with Joe Mendez: “It’s a great way to take out my anger and frustrations.” (2016)

Most of the boxers are male, most are Latino – but there are females and there are African Americans and a few others in the mix. Many are in low-income situations and some are at-risk. But in the confines of Zion’s gymnasium, they are a community of individuals aiming for being the best they be.

“These kids are amazing,” said Pastor Sue Hand of Zion Lutheran Church. “Some of them have tough challenges in life… but they try to find positive ways to deal with it.”

I was fortunate to talk one-on-one with three of those young men, all of whom were looking into the future – well-knowing their lives could have easily taken them down unhealthy paths.

Joe Mendez, who was 18 at this time, began boxing when he was 14 years old. 

“At first I thought it would be a little ‘phase’ thing,” Mendez’s father said. “But after I watched a couple of fights, I knew he was serious. I’m really proud of him.”

Mendez, who has run track, played basketball and football, and who works out to stay in shape, knew he was in the right place when he stepped into the ring for his first fight.

“I wasn’t really nervous,” he said. “When I stepped into the ring I thought ‘just lean back into what you’ve learned, Joe’ – and it worked. I can do it when I put my mind to it.”

Jeremy Olivarez, who was 19 at this time, also started when he was 14 years old. He was inspired to try the sport after witnessing an older cousin’s success with tae kwon do.

“He learned discipline and proved he could be tough,” Olivarez said. “Not ‘tough’ like beating somebody up… but being able to hold his own.”

Olivarez, who works full time, spends his evenings working out at the boxing club and his weekends participating in tournaments. He credits boxing for keeping him disciplined and focused.

“I’m either working or boxing,” Olivarez said. “I don’t have time to get in trouble. We can’t drink; we can’t smoke. We need to be healthy – our bodies and our minds.”

Olivarez knows he could have easily self-destructed. At the time I spoke with him, his father was in prison. Even harder was the loss of his mother who was murdered in her home several months prior to my meeting him. (His father’s incarceration had no relation to his mother’s death.)

“A family… well… sometimes in life you can’t control things,” Olivarez said. “It’s [boxing] a great way to take out my anger and frustrations. I definitely need this.”

He hopes to go professional.

“I can only do my best,” he said. “It’ll take a lot of time, a lot of hard work, and a lot of faith.”

Jayden Rodriguez, who was 14 at this time, began boxing when he was 12 years old. He rapidly made his way to championship status. But he had his doubts when he entered the ring for his first bout.

“I was anxious and wanted to get it over with,” he said. “But I just focused and remembered what I’d learned – and I won.”

That win gave Rodriguez the boost he needed to continue.

“I like it,” said Rodriguez’s father. “It keeps Jayden busy. When he gets home he’s worn out and he doesn’t have time to run the streets. And he know that if he gets in trouble, his punishment is ‘no training’.”

Like Olivarez, Rodriguez hopes to be a professional boxer.

“These three young men are awesome. It’s been amazing watching the transformation – especially Jeremy. This program and his girlfriend are the two steadying things in his life.” Hand said. “The kids who come here find purpose and affirmation. They find acceptance. It’s great for them, it’s great for the neighborhood, and it’s great for Zion.”

Kids Can Do Anything (2016)

Sometimes it takes the straightforward, no-nonsense approach of children to get things done – and was reminded of that while doing this story.

It’s a simple process, really: (1) decide what to do and (2) do it. 

The process says “no” to studies, surveys, committees, performance tests, red tape, or all that other stuff that adults sometimes let get in the way of action. You just name it, then you do it. It’s a no fuss, no muss deal.

That’s exactly what sisters Makayla (age 10 at this time) and Sarah (age 8 at this time), Wiseman, members of Christ the King Lutheran Church, Gladwin, did when they heard about the Flint Water Crisis.

“At school one day I heard some people talking about the bad water,” Makayla said. “I thought, ‘huh… maybe we should do something about that. Maybe we should have a bake sale and give the money to the people in Flint’.”

Makayla Wiseman, second from right, talks with Sue Sprang (left) about the bake sale. Also in the picture are her sister, Sarah (right), and their friend, Shannon Graham. (2016)

After school that day, Makayla told her sister about her idea. Sarah agreed and they approached their mom, Dawn Wiseman, to get her take on things. Much to the sisters’ delight, their mom wholeheartedly agreed.

Within a week, the girls had recruited some of the congregation’s best bakers and placed an announcement in the bulletin. The bake sale was held after worship services the following weekend. Baked goods were purchased by freewill donations.

Makayla and Sarah raised $194. The money went to Salem Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Flint, which was and still is instrumental in assisting the community with issues related to the water crisis. Makayla and Sarah’s gift went toward a new filtration system installed at the church – a place people could come to obtain clean, safe, sustainable water.

The girls made no hesitation in explaining why they chose to have the bake sale.

“The kids are sick,” Sarah said. “They need help.”

“They cannot drink the water,” Makayla said. “They cannot bathe or cook.

“Jesus wants us to help others,” she continued thoughtfully, “and it’s a good thing to do during Lent. We’re supposed to go out and help others.”

Christ the King’s pastor, Emily Olsen, was pleased with the girls’ desire to serve Jesus and to help others.

“Kids like the Wiseman girls not only make us proud,” she said, “but their actions make it look like we actually know what we’re doing from time to time.”

What advice would the sisters give their peers?

“Kids can help out in any way they want,” Makayla said.

Sarah agreed with a smile and a nod of satisfaction.

The Good Years (2017)

Interviewing C. J. Clark is always a pleasure. Clark is the executive director of Living Water Ministries (LWM), a joint program of the North/West Lower and Southeast Michigan Synods, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This particular interview was done in the spring of 2017, looking back at summer 2016 and toward the upcoming summer.

“It was a good year,” said Clark, as he reflected on 2016 summer camp and looked toward the 2017 season, “and we expect this year to be a good one, too.”

Under Clark’s vision and steady hand, LWM summer camp has been moving forward by offering quality programing based on community, inclusivity, faith and leadership formation, and the current and future needs of the Church and the world. Program director Lori Pranger and LWM’s board have also played integral roles in the program’s evolution.

LWM’s mission statement reads: “Bringing together all of God’s children to experience Christian community, grow in faith, develop leadership skills, and serve others.”

“Our mission statement clearly defines who we are,” Clark said. “We were intentional with the phrase ‘all of God’s children’ because we didn’t want to leave anybody out. It’s a guiding statement that holds LWM accountable to reaching out to as many people as possible with the gospel through the camp experience.”

“Bridge Builders” brings youth from across the country to address leadership and racism in a safe, caring, faith-forming environment. (2016)

Among 2016’s successes was “Bridge Builders,” which has gained national recognition as a cutting-edge program. Geared for youth grades 9-12, “Bridge Builders” seeks to help participants “grow as a leader, develop peer ministry skills, and join the fight against racism as an expression of their faith and our call to love our neighbors.”

Clark shared that the week-long program was intense, but participants left with a new or renewed sense of purpose and empowerment.

“There were definitely some challenge points,” he said. “Probably the biggest challenge was bringing together kids from different cultures and cultural norms. We needed to recognize and acknowledge each other’s survival or preservation modes and keep grace front-and-center – but the kids navigated through the week just fine.”

Joining their Michigan peers were youth from across the U.S. Scholarships were available to assist out-of-state participants with registration and travel costs.

One young woman, Leticia, commented: “… I was very impressed with my small group discussing the experience they had relating to privilege and racism. I did not know that they would be as upset as I was with society nowadays.”

“The dynamic was awesome,” Clark said. “[The kids] wanted to be there.”

Grant-based follow-up will keep track of how the young people are implementing their learning and experience at home.

Another fast-growing program is Day Camp. Geared for kids ages 5-12, day camp’s purpose is to “provide a safe environment for families to engage the gospel daily in ways that are fun, educational, and transformative.” 

“We work with each congregation to tweak the program for their needs and desired outcome,” Clark said. “What works in one setting isn’t necessarily the best format for another.”

Because of the growing demand for day camp, LWM has had to find ways to meet that need.

“We’ve increased the number of [day camp] teams,” Clark said. “We’ll keep adapting as we go.”

Clark credits the staff for their genuineness and hard work in making the summer a success. Programs and situations involving campers with what is called “other normal” were a challenge. 

“They had to learn to recognize that not everyone defines or experiences ‘normal’ the same way,” he said. “We’ll keep working on our “mental first aid” – recognizing that certain behaviors that we see as not normal might be normal for someone else.”

At the end of the day, though, the staff brought it home.

“They see what is happening,” Clark said. “They see change in the world and they believe in making a difference, in tearing down boundaries. We’re building on that for the upcoming (2017) summer.” 

 Clark summarized our conversation by saying: “One of our core values is ‘excellence’. Things can only get better!”

Operation Turkey Sandwich (2016)

While most of us enjoy not working on holidays (especially Thanksgiving and Christmas), more and more workers are finding themselves at their jobs as stores, restaurants, cinemas, and other non-essential businesses open their doors on those special days. They join an already established holiday workforce from essential services, such as law enforcement, firefighters, and so on.

Kristen Wilson, a member at Peace Lutheran Church, South Haven, was a member at St. James Lutheran Church in Jackson, when she was inspired by similar projects to thank those workers   – not only for working on a holiday, but for their work in general.

It made sense that such a project should happen on Thanksgiving Day. And so, with willing volunteers on board, Wilson spearheaded “Operation Turkey Sandwich”. The goal was to deliver paper bag “Thanksgiving” meals to people on the job on Thanksgiving Day.

It was decided that the sack meals should not require silverware. Two turkeys were roasted, then made into sandwiches. Volunteers met at the church on Thanksgiving morning to pack and deliver the lunch bags.

Each bag included: a plain turkey sandwich, a homemade stuffing “muffin”, a homemade pumpkin dessert (bar or cookie), a boxed cranberry juice and straw, a napkin, one packet each of mayonnaise and mustard, and most importantly, a note of thanks.

Operation Turkey Sandwich is an outreach of “thanks” to those who work on Thanksgiving Day.

The lunch bags were hand-delivered to places such as grocery stores, dollars stores, etc., in Jackson, with a verbal “Happy Thanksgiving” and thanks. Sixty-two meals were delivered.

“We handed one to a police officer on a corner,” Wilson said, “and you could tell he was so surprised. We had made his day.”

I was impressed with the project, then I thought of the possibilities. Thanksgiving isn’t the only holiday to thanks those who are working. What about a Memorial Day or 4thof July picnic or a traditional Christmas Day meal in a bag? Are there others in your congregation or community who might help you show holiday workers that you care?