By Susan LeDoux
Today, Cherise Parris is Youth Director of Joy Community Church and heads up its Summer of Kindness program. Four years ago, becoming a youth director was not on her radar. She had just completed her studies for a Master’s degree in social work when she failed her licensing exam by only one point. As she watched her grand plans to work with children and families fall apart, a friend’s comment proved prophetic. “You know, you missed by only one point. I think that’s interesting. God’s trying to tell you something.”
“I kid you not,” Parris said. “Less than an hour later, Pastor James called and offered me the open youth director position. He said, ‘God literally gave me your name this morning in my quiet time.’”
Full of trepidation, but trusting the Lord to direct her, she accepted the interim position that was supposed to last three to six months. She laughed. “It’s going on four years now.”
In 2016 Joy Community Church launched Summer of Kindness rather than a traditional Vacation Bible School program, which would require far more volunteers than the church could provide. Instead, Summer of Kindness began as a three-week summer program with community kickball the first week, delivering groceries in week two, and visiting the residents of a nursing home during week three.
The next year, Parris felt the Lord leading her to extend Summer of Kindness from late June through August. The following year, she believes God called her to add fine arts to the mix, which would have been daunting, except for Parris’ background.
“My parents ran a fine arts camps all my years growing up… At the end of the week, we put on a production for the parents. So that’s where I drew my ideas from.”
Now Summer of Kindness includes art, drama, drum lessons, kick-ball, hip-hop dance and music, cooking classes, choir, and delivering groceries. Children pre-register and Parris schedules each class around the volunteer teachers’ schedules. Like Pastor James, she turns to the Lord to find her volunteers. As she plans the activities — the cooking class, for example — she asks and waits for God to put a name in her head.
“I know it is God because I was never thinking of that person. It’s always the person you don’t think about. Then I ask, and I think, ‘Oh my goodness! I’m so honored you thought of me.’”
“I have a great group of kids. They love serving,” she went on. “I had 10 kids that all wanted to get out of the car to deliver a bag of groceries to one house.”
Parris noted that it blesses people so much when the kids are eager to minister to them. She laughed, saying she did not know how enthusiastic they were about doing chores at home, but when helping one shut-in with cleaning her apartment, they vied with each other over who got to do which tasks.
They bring the same enthusiasm to classes as well. After only one half-hour, Mike Peace (youth pastor at Bethel Express and professional rapper and drummer) said the kids learned his entire drum lesson in lightning speed. Under the guidance of their teachers, they practice songs, learn hip-hop, prepare tasty dishes, and perfect their dramatic lines to prepare for Parents Night on August 16, when they will display their accomplishments.
Most of the children who attend Summer of Kindness are from the community, and many parents do not have a church home.
“We’ll invite them into the church (so they can see) what their kids learned this summer. It’s not about recruiting for our church, it’s about recruiting for the Kingdom — winning souls for Christ.”
This year, about 20 children attended, mostly age 8 to 18. Although open to children from age four on, those under eight must have a guardian so the teacher is not distracted with overly active little ones.
As Parris forms relationships with the children and their parents over the summer, community children start to attend other events with Joy’s youth group. When asked if different worldviews and backgrounds make blending church youth with community youth challenging, Parris had an answer.
“God wanted that potential conflict to change. It’s not your kids, our kids, these kids, or those kids. It’s that these are youth that are passionate for Jesus and want to come and learn, and we teach them to do that.”
Parris added she believes kids get short-changed when adults feel they should water things down for them. “I said the real world isn’t sugar-coated, and I guarantee you if they’re not hearing it from us, they’re hearing it from their peers, or what they watch on TV, so you better be the first line of defense so they know the truth from what the world is telling them. And so, that’s what I do with my lessons. I don’t sugar-coat. God helps me put the Word of God in laymen’s terms for them to understand in their culture and their world, how this relates to them and how they’re supposed to live.”
Parris recently set aside Friday evening as Youth Night from six to eight p.m. for grades six to twelve, just to come and hang out throughout the year, not only in the summer. “We open up the youth center and have video, board, and card games. That’s just two hours on a Friday night to do something constructive.”
With more children from the community participating in Summer of Kindness and other Joy Church youth group events, God’s loving care continues long after the last rose of summer fades.
For more information about Joy Community Church and its youth programs, call (585) 288-0030.