Like thousands of other kids, Soleila Gonzalez quickly discovered how special Camp Loucon is and the bonds forged during weeks spent at the summer camp in Leitchfield, Kentucky.
Soleila, 13, has been attending for five years and talks excitedly of the friendships made but also some of the somber stories her fellow summer campers share – such as parental divorce. But during their time at camp, “they’re just able to let go,” she said.
Soleila, a Noe Middle School seventh-grader whose father is the Rev. Jose Gonzalez on staff at Buechel United Methodist Church, is a shining beacon of the Heartland District’s push to reach out to hurting children and help spread the Gospel and minister to children. She was one of the young people who helped lead the musical part of the worship service that kicked off the “A Heart for Children” conference held Saturday, March 4, at Christ Church United Methodist in Louisville.
More than 200 lay leaders and clergy from the District joined in as Soleila, at one point becoming visibly emotional, led the singing of “Set a Fire.” Other children taking part in the worship service included Lily and Luke Smith, who led the roomful of adults in “Great Are You Lord” and “10,000 Reasons.”
The Rev. Becki Curry, district superintendent, said that A Heart for Children was born after church representatives asked a simple question: “Can 25,000 United Methodists in the Heartland District make a difference in the lives of the children in our churches, communities and world?”
“We know that this vision will be realized when there is no evidence of where the church ends and the world begins,” Superintendent Curry told attendees during the opening worship service.
Superintendent Curry cited some sobering statistics about children living in the half-dozen counties that comprise the Heartland District. Almost 7,000 were abused last year; many will need to be removed from their homes; one in five regularly goes to bed hungry; the heroin epidemic is out of control and tearing families apart. These tragedies “break God’s heart,” she said.
Participants at A Heart for Children could select from various small-group meetings to attend, including sessions on summer camps and retreats, ministering to children in foster care, connecting with schools and day cares, urban ministry, and the scourge of child sex trafficking.
The conference’s keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. Leanne Hadley, an internationally recognized author and expert on how to improve the spiritual lives of children and a part-time staff member at Christ Church UMC. One of her key thrusts is to make worship and the Gospel relevant to the rising generation.
“I believe we are standing at the crossroads for the future of our church,” Rev. Hadley told conference participants. “If we continue doing the same things we’ve been doing, we will die.”
She added, “It is time for us to choose the good path.”
Rev. Hadley has created a blueprint for ministering to children called the Holistic Ministry Model that focuses on spiritual transformation by making them an integral part of the entire worship experience – not segregating them from the adult body of Christ. She cited Soleila and the other children who led the music as a great example of this type of spiritual integration.
“All I’m asking you is to do something different than the way we’ve done it,” Rev. Hadley exhorted the participants.
Rev. Hadley’s website expands on her mission: “This world has become a difficult place for kids! They face divorce, bullying, school shootings, social media issues, death of loved ones, deployment of a parent and the list could go on and on. We need to help kids learn to cope, heal and navigate this world. I am here to help.”
One huge concern cited at the conference by Rev. Hadley is a pervasive pornography industry that has made no secret of its desire to lure children at a very young age.
“They are being hooked like a fish,” Rev. Hadley said.
Churches are at a crossroads, she said: They can either put the lambs on their shoulders or continue on the path they’re going down, which includes a tendency to make excuses for failing to effectively minister to children.
She urged participants to critically assess their churches and try to determine whether their children’s ministry is more along the lines of outdated models or the more effective holistic approach.
“When we start holding sacred space with children, oh my stars … you will start seeing amazing things happen,” she said.
“We have to be bold. We have to stand on the edge and say, ‘What do we do now?''
Superintendent Curry said in an interview that a key part of the church’s mission is not just connecting during sacred time but with our neighbors in need in the streets and homes of our communities.
It’s a message that already resonates with some at the conference, including young Soleila. When asked after she led participants in song what she hoped they would take away from A Heart for Children, she said that they would just let go and that when it comes to helping the children, “trust that it’s in His hands.”
For more information
The Rev. Dr. Leanne Hadley stands ready to help. She has a website, http://www.leanne-hadley.com/
, which includes information about her book, “Blessed to be a Blessing: Sacred Circle Time for Young Children.”