Clerics bringing the children back to love of God


Cheryl Weems, a student at Dumbarton Middle School, just north of the city line, would rather spend afternoons at her Towson church than at home.

"It's happier being around here," said Cheryl, 12, who has been attending the church's after-school study program for three years. "We get help with our homework and can talk about our problems."

The program is just one of the tools the Rev. Ann F. Lightener, minister of Mount Calvary African-Methodist Episcopal Church, is using to help children establish an enduring relationship with the church.

Formerly, parents assumed the responsibility of keeping their children active in churches and synagogues. But for reasons ranging from parental leniency to adults' own lack of interest in religion, the responsibility often is now transferred to clergy members, who work hard to keep young people interested in their faith.

"Ministers have had to actively go after young people," said Ms. Lightener. "People don't make their children go to church anymore."

So, houses of worship are now turning more and more to youth groups, social events and after-school and summer activities in their efforts to bring youngsters back to religion. The task is not an easy one. Television, school programs, video games and malls all compete for a youngster's time.

"There are millions of things out there vying for kids' attention," said Cherie Seidman-Brownstein, youth director for Beth Tfiloh Congregation.

In 1986, Beth Tfiloh added a high school to its educational program. This gives older youngsters who do not attend regular services an opportunity for continuing involvement with Judaism, said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, dean of the synagogue's Judaica school.

At Beth Tfiloh, monthly programs teach families the traditions of different holidays and encourage families to start their own traditions. Through these efforts, religious education is getting back into the home, said Ms. Seidman-Brownstein.

"Families' lives are more hectic," she said. "We're trying to say, 'Don't let this take away from your Jewish family life.' Hopefully, this will have a residual effect as kids grow older."

"The focus of being Jewish is going to come from the home," said Rabbi Richard Camras, head of Chizuk Amuno Congregation's youth program. "We can only hope to strengthen that."

The Rev. Emmett C. Burns of the Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn knows that the success of a child's religious life often depends on parental support.

"In some cases, parents are too liberal with their children," he said. "The regret I have is that we're not reaching enough [children]. "It's not easy because sometimes young people resist broadening their horizons."

"Underneath it all, these children need to feel loved and needed," Ms. Lightener said. "And, maybe because I'm a woman, I baby them."

It's not unusual for her to reward a good report card with an outing to the movies or to McDonald's. She recently took a student who'd received a poor report card to see "Malcolm X." She wanted "to inspire him," she said.

Children are "not just going to come and sit up in 11:00 worship," Ms. Lightener explained. "They're not going to enjoy it much if they're not a part of it. We make it a point to give them things to do."

Melrone McCray, 17, a member at Mount Calvary for two years, admits that his upbringing influenced his church participation. But, he adds, it's exciting to be part of a congregation that involves youth.

"People don't just want to sit around all day and do nothing," said the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute senior. "It gets boring. You need something to interest you."

At Mount Calvary, he helps younger children with their homework, prepares reports on famous blacks for the congregation and joins the choir on trips to nursing homes and other places. He said his activities teach him "more about what it is to serve God."

At Rising Sun, Mr. Burns said he has few problems with children leaving the congregation because "we are heavily programmed for youth."

"Young people are more questioning today," he said. "Ministers have to be learned and exposed to a lot of things in order to be effective."

That means being up-to-date on issues that concern kids, including drugs, sexual promiscuity and respect for authority figures. These topics are often discussed during the overnight retreats the church holds for young people, he said.

At Mount Calvary, children also find the structure and support that may be lacking at home. There are choirs and an after-school tutorial program. Members volunteer time, donate study supplies and feed children who would rather spend the afternoon at church than home alone.

"Sometimes they'll come even when there's nothing going on," said Ms. Lightener. "If they see my car, they will come in this church. It's not just a Sunday thing."

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