Summer service is an annual event for the youth at South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church. But this year, instead of traveling out of Charlotte to help those in need, they stayed close to home, serving Uptown for a month’s worth of “Mission Mondays.”
The youth group has done several mission trips out of town in the past, helping the homeless or other people in need in areas like Asheville or towns in West Virginia. But this year, youth pastor Katie Harrington wanted to do something different and bring attention closer to home.
“We’ve done away missions before, so we thought it would be a good idea to work locally,” Harrington said. “Most of our kids live in Ballantyne or Union County, so we don’t really see poverty on our (doorstep).”
The group partnered with uptown Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center every Monday from June 17 to July 8, riding the city bus every week from south Charlotte to experience as much as possible what it’s like to walk in the homeless’ shoes. The group met with one of the center’s “neighbors” who helped walk them through a day in the life. They worked at the center’s community garden, passed out bottles of water, served iced tea at lunch and painted birdhouses for the center’s art program.
Harrington said the participating group was small, with anywhere between five to 10 students, and the Urban Ministry Center can’t accommodate large groups. With students from Ardrey Kell High, Charlotte Latin, Marvin Ridge High and Weddington High schools, Harrington said the experience taught students that being homeless can look many different ways, and those in need are people, too.
“I think what the kids enjoyed most was when they were actually able to interact and talk with the neighbors. It was good to have a real, human experience,” she said, adding that she hoped students learned, “These are people just like me.”
Harrington said the group decided to do local mission work over a course of several weeks to give students a chance to make relationships with the “neighbors” of the center.
“Instead of doing it weeklong like the past, it was really about getting to learn (about) them in a very different way because they are our neighbors,” she said.
She hopes by introducing the students to the center, it’s a place they’ll hopefully go back to on their own to volunteer.
Working at the Urban Ministry Center was an eye-opener for Ardrey Kell High School rising sophomores Zack and Carson Sisk, they said. While they’ve volunteered in other ways, Carson said visiting Uptown via city bus was totally new – especially since the 15-year-old Ballantyne resident has only been Uptown about 10 times. She said it was a great experience to learn that, outside of her affluent community, poverty can be found right in her own city boundaries.
“To see how different people can be in one community…It’s pretty surprising because you always think of cities like L.A. and New York City that have a lot of homeless people,” Carson said. “It’s very different because being around so much wealth, you don’t realize just a couple of miles away a homeless person could be sleeping on a park bench.”
Zack, her brother, said the experience helped break the stereotype of the homeless he was familiar with. While it’s easy to picture homeless people as “the guy with raggedy, patchy clothes who doesn’t smell very good,” the idea just isn’t true, Zack said.
“There were people of all sizes, ethnicities and clothes. I even saw one guy wearing a suit,” Zack said. “There was no defining characteristic that defined homeless.”