By Eric N. Fung
Special to The Tribune
I remember my high school years quite fondly — I strutted around campus, hoping to be both a studious egghead and a cool jock. Because I attended Flintridge Prep, the football and basketball varsity teams actually had space for my “tall 5-foot-7” frame. (What I lacked in height, I made up in the weight room).
But what I remember most about high school is the time I spent with my friends walking to class, chatting on the senior patio and “studying” in the library. After practice, my teammates and I would eat Panda Express or the Habit. And my church youth group would frequent the beach and laser tag arenas.
The COVID-19 pandemic has stripped all of this away from America’s youth these past six months. No in-person class. No restaurants. No prom. No graduation. And possibly no sports next year. Nothing. I imagine that my 17-year-old self would have responded to a football practice-less summer with despondency. And I would be lying if I said that I did not feel a little dejected as I began my summer church internship at San Marino Community Church. However, I noticed something: even with COVID-19 robbing them of their normalcy, the SMCC youth had not lost hope.
I grew up in San Marino, but, when I recently returned, I recognized very little — partly due to mandated facial coverings and stay-at-home orders. I began my internship at SMCC during my 14-day self-imposed self-isolation period. Due to workplace restrictions, I have missed out on working in the church office, where I would have bumped into all the pastors and staff and shared lunch with them. Instead, I keep my webcam off as I shovel granola down my gullet during our early morning meetings.
I have missed out on greeting the congregants of the church at post-service coffee hour in the courtyard. Instead, I facilitate worship services by preaching and praying at a camcorder in an almost empty sanctuary.
Despite numerous Zoom meetings replacing in-person fellowship, I have found that the clergy and staff at SMCC have gone to great lengths to ensure that I feel welcomed, and they have advised me well so that I can work hard and succeed. They display an infectious love and care, which has begun to manifest in the youth of SMCC. I commiserate with the millions of youth who have lost this important part of their formation. But I sense that I worry about the youth more than is warranted because they have embraced our virtual fellowship with so much joy.
Tapestry Youth SoCal, a Presbyterian youth collective that includes SMCC, hosted Missions Week last week. During a typical Missions Week, the youth head to various mission sites to explore the various ways in which different people and organizations have sought justice in their communities. In years past, students visited, for example, women’s shelters, food banks and former gang rehabilitation centers, where they would clean, paint, pack meals, and talk to organizers and those whom the organization sought to serve. However, with Los Angeles County’s epidemic, packing people like sardines in vans and driving to sites seems irresponsible and reckless.
Instead, Tapestry leaders moved Missions Week online. The core message has been the same. We, as Christians, are called to “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). Each day, we learned about different ways to think about justice in our communities, and I was thoroughly impressed with the courage that these youth show in their walks with God. They shared how God has encouraged them to think about and pray and act for, for example, racial, socioeconomic and climate justice. The youth also showed the care and love that they have for each other by going on physically distanced prayer walks and sending handwritten notes to each other. I have really appreciated the opportunity to share with these youth my faith journey, to play games (virtual Escape Room was certainly a high point!), to joke around and to continue seeking God in every moment.
As a part of my internship, I read “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics” by Samuel Wells, an Anglican priest and professor of theology. He writes, “Ethics is not about being clever in a crisis but about forming a character that does not realize it has been in a crisis until the ‘crisis’ is over.” Perhaps the virtual Escape Room, prayer vlogs and Instagram ministry sound like “clever” solutions to our COVID-19 crisis. But I believe we, as youth leaders, simply did what we always would have done. We love our youth.
And although my time with SMCC’s youth ministries, led fearlessly by director Lindsay Anderson-Beck and the Rev. Becca Bateman, has felt extremely ephemeral, I hope they know how grateful I am that they allowed me into their lives, even during such a delicate time as this. The youth are our future, and we have the community and hope to prove it.
Fung is a Princeton Theological Seminary intern at San Marino Community Church.