By Kayleigh Kirby
SSP Staff-in-Training from Asbury United Methodist Church
I’ve been thinking a great deal about religion.
It probably has quite a lot to do with the things that I’ve come to associate with summer. For the last two years, a week each summer was spent at a truly life-changing program which I’ve come to be really invested in — Sierra Service Project. I went with my youth group far from home and electronics, and spent time away from my comfort zone and away from my standard family, friends, lifestyle, diet…the list goes on. But the most amazing thing by far is the time spent reevaluating my faith, time spent away from the complacency in my journey which dominates my day-to-day experiences.
But the most amazing thing by far is the time spent reevaluating my faith, time spent away from the complacency in my journey which dominates my day-to-day experiences.
Here’s the thing: prior to SSP, I’d never have called myself religious. As it is, I’m not the most religiously-inclined person. Honestly, I’m a bit cynical, having come from a strange family situation, wherein faith played an odd part (a story for another time). I did the youth group more for the community and the friends I’d make than for the religious part. I attended church (a different church than the one where I went to youth group) every Sunday less out of choice and more out of what I felt was obligation. And when it got right down to it, the thing is that this jaded outlook on religion had more to do with my personal identity and conflict with Church teaching than religion as a failing.
See, even back in 10th, 11th grade, I believed that God exists, and is watching out for us amongst other things. However, I never found myself fully committed to the Church’s teachings about God, largely because by this time, my critical thinking skills had landed me in a conundrum: if God truly loved all They had made, then why in the world would They create something modeled after an ideal which They found sinful? This was something I puzzled over long and hard. (To simplify, I wanted to know why God would make gay people, LGBT+ people in general, if They found being LGBT+ people inherently sinful. It never made sense.)
I can’t say SSP helped answer that, but SSP opened me to searching for that answer, when I’d wholly given up on the Church. SSP renewed my faith. They made it worthwhile for me to want to find my answers, because they made me want to believe there was more to God, to faith, than what I’d been taught there was.
SSP opened me to searching for that answer, when I’d wholly given up on the Church.
Sierra Service Project is more than a summer youth program, it’s a safe environment in which young people are invited to contribute their authentic selves to the community they create that week. It is a place where we are asked to set aside our personal lives and egos, and to serve others in love, and with grace. It is a time in which, to quote them directly, youth are invited “into a closer relationship with God, and to experience the transformative power of serving people who have a culture and life experience different from their own.” And it is a place I found that helped me reconnect with my faith, because they reminded me that questions are the foundation of our faith.
Their enthusiasm was honestly infectious.
Every moment of my week from last summer is crystal clear in my memory. You see, last summer, my youth group went in Week 1 as opposed to Week 5, and we went to Stockton (not far from home). And as week 1 falls over the week of the 4th of July…you can imagine a lot of kids’ families don’t want them gone on a holiday. So my youth group went to Stockton with considerably less than the people we’d expected to have due to last-minute changes in plans, and there were 2 other, equally small youth groups present, making it a tiny community. Additionally, the staff there was full of energy, and so ready to make the week a fantastic one. Their enthusiasm was honestly infectious.
But then my group was assigned, and we were going to be working at Boggs Tract Community Farm in Stockton which helps provide food to low-income houses and educates the community about responsible farming. I had a group which included one person I’d been grouped with the year before, Parker, as well as a few others I’d never met, but was thrilled to get the opportunity to know. And we worked in the farm, and had a nice shady spot to eat lunch in (which is honestly a real luxury during SSP), and we met so many members of the community, which really allowed us to see our impact and see the way our service was helping long-term.
The answers I got from them, honestly, helped me start really looking for my own answers.
We also had the best staff I’d met of any summer youth program I’ve been in, so enthusiastic about helping us connect and grow in faith, and taking something from the week. The community that we created that week would have been impossible without them. It was so easy in a smaller group to really connect with all of the staff, to ask them about their lives and what college would be like, to ask them about why they chose SSP, and talk to them about their faith. The answers I got from them, honestly, helped me start really looking for my own answers. And by the time we had our closing ceremony on Friday, I knew that while I’d come to SSP in a not-necessarily-bad place, I was definitely leaving in a very good place…
I think the best gift SSP has given me is the ability to honestly keep searching for my own answers.
Which leads me to this past year…wherein I found a few of my answers, and kept some of the best pieces of SSP close to my heart. I’ve spent more time writing and meditating since my trip to SSP, and overall have found myself in a better place in my faith and life thanks to them. Being able to love and serve others, and to experience the joys of meeting new people and pouring out your heart to them, or traveling to swim in the Delta of all places, or just getting to find out that you’re not alone in your faith journey…that made me a happier person, a more rounded person, and a person content in my faith. Overall, though, I think the best gift SSP has given me is the ability to honestly keep searching for my own answers, and the ability to keep an eye out for opportunities to serve others, often in unexpected ways. So thank you to Sierra Service Project, and everyone involved in making it the life-changing experience it is.
Editor’s Note: This was originally posted on Kayleigh’s Medium. Kayleigh will be a Staff-in-Training (SIT) in Stockton this summer. If you or a youth you know is graduated from High School and at least 18, submit an application and references soon to be considered for the SIT program.