Addressing the shortage of African American young adults actively participating in ministries in the Episcopal Church, the church's Office of Black Ministries recently convened 20 young adults representing 10 dioceses and five provinces in San Juan, Puerto Rico, August 31-September 3 for the first S.O.U.L.—Spiritual Opportunity to Unite and Learn—conference dedicated to young adults.
The S.O.U.L. Conference is an annual event designed to develop young leaders from the black community for ministry in the wider church. It alternates yearly with the focus being on young adults aged 18-35 years and high school students.
This year, under the theme "Real World Mission…Getting around, getting along and getting ahead," 13 females and seven males aged 18-35 years old met and engaged in an intense training aimed at commissioning them for ministry through the newly formed Network of Black Episcopal Young Adults (NBEYA).
"Throughout the church, this age group is minimal at best, and in some instances non-existent," said the Rev. Angela Ifill, missioner for Black Ministries across the Episcopal Church. "Our hope is to work with congregations and dioceses to develop a larger cadre of young adults from the black communities for a wider ministry in the Episcopal Church."
During the three-day gathering, participants engaged in discussions on topics for leadership that included dynamics for effective communication, presentation skills, vocations, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), leadership skills, group dynamics, conflict management, vocations, event planning, the church, and expectations of the new Presiding Bishop.
"They were also involved in service ministry and met members of the diocese of Puerto Rico when Bishop Alvarez addressed the group," Ifill said.
Keisha Lightbourne Barros, 35, a member of St. John's in Hempstead, Long Island, said she was "deeply moved" by the work that the Diocese of Puerto Rico has achieved and that it "reignited my desire to find new ways to serve."
Involvement in the conference was not on a first come, first served basis. Attendees had to apply and meet certain criteria. Ifill said the conference information was disseminated to diocesan and province leaders who selected candidates to submit applications. The applications and essays were reviewed by the design team who made a determination based on the applicant's essay presentation, level of interest and purpose.
Kamla Bhagwandin, 30, a member of Church of the Ascension in Miami, Florida, said she wanted to attend the conference because she thought it would be a great way "to deepen my spirituality and enhance my leadership skills."
"I anticipated taking on the role of youth advisor in my church and the objectives of the conference as well as the namesake, S.O.U.L., excited me," she said. "I felt it would help with the renewed energy that I needed and it would be a great learning space."
Barros said she had "multiple interests in the conference."
"First, I always relish the opportunity to meet young Black leaders like myself. Second, as a young Black person in the Episcopal Church I have noticed that there are so few of us willing to sit on committees and be involved. I see the numbers of youth in church and involved dwindling, and I wanted to find new ways to bolster this segment of membership. And last, but not least, I was intrigued by the opportunity to learn more about and become more involved in the church at the national and international levels," she said.
Kisha Middleton, 32, a member of St. Thomas in Chicago, Illinois, said the opportunity to learn more about the Episcopal Church and taking more of a leadership role initially drew her to the conference. She credited the experience with opening her eyes and heart "to doing more for my church and congregation."
The conference ended with each participant delivering a three minute presentation that summarized their experience. Each was commissioned and received certificates naming them as the newly formed NBEYA.
Ifill said their "post conference responsibilities" include local reporting, working with youth, participating in their congregation and diocese, recruiting others for NBEYA and planning a local S.O.U.L. conference. Then, a number of them will reassemble in approximately six to eight months for a "refresher and continued training."
Barros, a member of the Altar Guild and several other committees in her parish said she tends to fall short in demanding that her age group be counted and recognized. But this experience has changed that.
"Too often when there is something to be done, my age group is forgotten. I intend to be an advocate for their use, and find ways to recruit more of us by generating activities that will encourage them to stop by and prayerfully to stay," she said.
Bhagwandin, who was recently commissioned as a youth advisor in her church, had similar sentiments and said she felt "empowered to continue to do God's work."
"One of my personal goals is to create more of a youth presence in the functioning of the church," she said.
Planning for the 2007 S.O.U.L. conference begins in the next two months.