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Marcia Buhl: Seeds sewn long ago still reaping harvest

When invited to accompany our church’s youth group to Maine this past June, my immediate thought was, “They need younger advisers!” Yet my husband and I knew the need was great and we were available.

Forty years ago, an idealistic young couple, Alison Halsey and Bill Hathaway, Presbyterian ministers, linked with a seminary friend and took teens from their Buffalo churches to rural Maine for mission work. Neither could have imagined that four decades later, Westminster Presbyterian Church would not only be maintaining that tradition, but the relationship would be enriched and reciprocated with an August visit from our Maine friends.

We had been privileged to accompany the “Buffaloons,” one of the affectionate terms for our group, 25 years ago and thus were prepared for some of the tasks that would await us: house/barn painting, installing flooring, chucking and delivering wood for winter heat and assisting with gardening at our host church in Hartford. What we weren’t prepared for was the overwhelmingly positive homecoming that we would receive.

The year of preparation that precedes this trip involves a group effort that includes the teens baking and selling apple pies, hawking parking spaces for the Allentown Art Festival and peddling Maine Shares. This collective work effort not only pays for the transportation and food, but helps prepare the teens for the labor assignments they’ll confront when they arrive in Maine. Perhaps as importantly, it facilitates a bonding experience.

Beyond being dispatched daily to a work site, the teens share responsibility for meal preparation and maintenance of their “dormitory space” – the church sanctuary for the boys and the Sunday school room for the girls. The grunt work is nicely balanced with evenings of raucous table games, a trip to Freeport/L.L. Bean and the ocean, and this year a surprise Fourth of July fireworks display, launched especially for our group.

Repetition and continuity over the years have bred patterns and traditions that the teens find nurturing, reassuring and entertaining. A sampling includes Ron’s welcoming first night lasagna; voluntary 6:30 a.m. dips in a spring-fed lake; pranks that are harmless yet humor-filled; and, finally, one of my favorites, that we visitors cannot depart until we successfully pelt the road sign (about 30 feet across from the church) by zinging small stones at it!

At the crux of this venture is Mark, a veteran participant who, as youth coordinator, has a reading of each teen’s strengths, vulnerabilities and growing edges. From silly sound tracks for the daylong commute to Maine to his evening reflections, he has the capacity to fully engage them. He helps these young people stretch themselves in new and unexpected ways, concluding with a youth-led Sunday service.

Corresponding to our visit is a pilgrimage to Buffalo of 20 Maine teens who, with their advisers, are bunking at Westminster this week and working with several local organizations: St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, Viva LaCasa and Westminster’s own ENERGY tutoring program for the children of Buffalo’s newcomers. Should you see them in their “Maine Bisons” T-shirts, be sure to give them a City of Good Neighbors welcome and thank you.

Continuing this partnership has resulted in far more than the original intent. For most who participate, the week is a profound and seminal experience. It’s a process of building bridges: urban and rural; impoverished and affluent; and, as my husband and I discovered, young and old.

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