NEW YORK — On hot summer afternoons, Tiara Downer’s Summer Jam Cool Outs at King of Glory Tabernacle, a Mennonite Church USA congregation in the Bronx, gave neighborhood kids a chance to beat the heat and connect with the congregation.
Each week Downer walked through the neighborhood, handing out flyers about the Cool Out event and its theme of the week. She invited youth, ages 8-12, to come to the air-conditioned church for activities that included popsicles, ice cream and chilled drinks.
During a week when the theme was “Shining in the Dark,” Downer asked youth to reflect on ways they bring light and hope to difficult situations. She remembered one participant saying that shining in the dark means “doing what’s right, even if everyone else is doing the wrong thing.”
Downer helped participants make lava lamps from recycled water bottles to take home as reminders of the ways they can bring light to their communities.
Downer, who is studying social work at Lehman College in New York, is one of 36 young adults who participated in Mennonite Central Committee U.S.’s Summer Service program. This short-term program supports young people of color throughout the U.S. develop leadership skills through working with local churches, summer camps and health-care facilities.
Danilo Sanchez, Summer Service national coordinator for MCC U.S., said that the Summer Service program reflects MCC’s commitment to building leadership capacity in the organizations with which it partners.
“Summer Service participants build the skills they need to be advocates for people in their own communities,” he said.
At King of Glory, Downer also organized events for teens on Friday evenings throughout the summer. She planned icebreakers, Bible study and leadership building activities.
“These activities involved teamwork, trust and laughter,” she said.
She also helped to organize the congregation’s vacation Bible school. She planned a bus trip for youth in her community to visit Camp Deerpark, a summer camp operated by New York City Mennonite churches.
Downer said she appreciated the opportunity to take on new leadership roles in her congregation as a Summer Service worker.
“Before, I was helping with events,” Downer said. “Now, I’m planning the events for myself.”
The next generation
Downer first learned about Summer Service through participating in a community mentoring program led by Hyacinth Stevens, co-pastor of King of Glory along with her spouse, Benjamin. Stevens also serves as MCC East Coast’s program coordinator for New York City.
As a young adult in the 1990s, Stevens was an MCC Summer Service worker. For three summers she worked in youth ministry in her congregation and as a counselor at Camp Deerpark.
“I had a heart for service,” Stevens said. “MCC and the Summer Service program gave me a chance to grow in my leadership capacity and to be immersed in service opportunities.”
Two decades later, Stevens is passing on her leadership skills to Downer. Stevens is grateful for the fresh ideas Downer brings to her congregation’s community and youth outreach.
“I am confident that we will continue to see the effects of Tiara’s work long after this summer,” she said.