Batavia youth group helps others find brighter future

  • Tania Gibson

    Tania Gibson

  • Katie Bernabei, left, from the youth group at Congregational Church of Batavia, makes a new friend during a mission trip to Cairo, Ill.

    Katie Bernabei, left, from the youth group at Congregational Church of Batavia, makes a new friend during a mission trip to Cairo, Ill. Courtesy Congregational Church of Batavia

Updated 12/27/2010 11:01 AM

Sometimes you just know there's more you can do to help.

That was the take-home for the senior high youth returning to Congregational Church of Batavia from an otherwise ordinary summer mission trip to Cairo, Ill.


What these suburban teens found in Cairo, a river town where one-third of the population lives below the poverty level, was disheartening.

"They wanted to go deeper than just the surface level of serving," said Marcia Schneider, director of youth and young adults. "They came home with a heart to go back there and do something, but we didn't know what."

In the meantime, to illustrate a New Testament parable, 10 adults at the church were given $50 each and tasked with multiplying the amount. They used it as seed money to organize fundraisers -- a concert, a bike ride, a pasta party and others.

Raising $8,000 in eight weeks, they decided to give it all to the kids for Cairo.

"The adults were really inspired by the kids, and the kids were inspired by Cairo, and it just became this big explosion," Schneider said.

So the church made another trip downstate in October, this time taking six adults and six students. They didn't really know why they were going, except to find out how they could make a difference in an impoverished community seven hours away.

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It was discouraging. No one in Cairo seemed to have any ideas, either, until the last day of the visit. That's when they met Gabe Harris.

Harris is a businessman, one of very few in town, Schneider said.

"He embraced them and said, 'No one from this town goes to college, there's no role models, there's no money.' "

And now there was no mistaking the students' mission, which was confirmed with another trip in November -- to send more Cairo youth to college so they have a chance for a better future elsewhere.

"We want to cast a vision for getting out, and possibly for coming back to inspire others," Schneider said. "At least to get yourself out of there and have a life. There's no work there, no business there."

She said she was told that only five of last year's 80 high school graduates went on to college this fall.

Realizing that all teens share questions and concerns about how to prepare for college, the Fox River and Ohio River valley youth forged friendships and a project they decided to call "Two Towns, One Future."


The next piece is a one-day seminar in Cairo taught by the church's own Tracy Beckley, a college prep expert. Students and parents from both locations will attend to learn, among other things, how to visit colleges, prepare for ACT tests and find financial aid.

The church intends to provide funding to send Cairo kids on college visits, "so they can see what a college campus looks like and get them dreaming," Schneider said. And there's talk of helping with tuition.

"They are thinking beyond just painting a house or playing with a kid," she said. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. That's needed, too.

"But this is the justice layer or systemic layer," Schneider said, "where you look at not just who we're serving, but why the people we're serving are oppressed. How can we walk alongside these people and work with them to remove obstacles?

"God's already at work in Cairo, and for some reason he's chosen us to be part of that."

Contemporary worship: Former Miss Illinois Tania Gibson is the new worship leader for the new contemporary service at Cary's Holy Cross Lutheran Church.

Performing since she was three years old, Gibson grew up at Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, and sang on the worship team there for about 10 years. It was during this time, in 1996, that she won the title of Miss Illinois and went on to the Miss America competition.

"But, after the pageant I grew into the worship leader position and really preferred that to just singing," said Gibson, who also writes worship songs and other Christian music and has an album in the works.

"To be able to experience and see God move in a room where people are worshipping and to really sense that they're just worshipping God, that's definitely where my heart is," she said. "I have bad voice days, and I make mistakes, but to know that I can have the opportunity to lead people in worship is awesome. It removes my abilities and allows them to just worship God."

Holy Cross had offered only traditional services, one on Saturday evening and one on Sunday morning, until last Easter, when the Missouri Synod congregation opened a new multipurpose building known as the LOFT -- Living Our Faith Together.

"We created a whole new service for that building," said secretary/receptionist Dawn Fox.

Contemporary worship is at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays. Attendance has already doubled since October, when Gibson came on board after meeting Pastor Bill Metzger at a ski jump tournament earlier in the year.

"It's another way to reach out to people who would never step foot in a traditional service," Gibson said. And with music from the playlist of K-LOVE radio -- songs from the likes of Chris Tomlin, Jesus Culture and Hillsong -- "it's less threatening."

Contemporary worship reflects a changing religious culture, Gibson said.

"Personally, I think God is on a move right now to touch hearts and release his love to everyone on the earth," she said. "Churches everywhere, not just Lutheran or Catholic or Presbyterian, are coming out of the box of what they've always known church to be.

"They're starting to bring in newness to that rather than always doing it the exact same way, and I think that's God," she said. "When God's behind it, it draws more people in, and even though it's happening everywhere, it doesn't all look the same.

"I get excited about that," Gibson said. "I think it's a cool thing that we get to live in a generation when this is happening."

• "In the Spirit" covers churches and synagogues in the Fox Valley area; contact to submit information or ideas for upcoming columns.


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