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United Church youth leaders Charley Switzer (Left) and Kathleen Kerr. Photo by Bruce Edwards

Their time is now

Meet seven United Church young people who are rising to the challenge of leadership

By Jennifer McPhee

Having energy to burn and a passion for their church, these young United Church leaders have already started to make their mark.

Charley Switzer and Kathleen Kerr
Ages: 18 and 19
Hometowns: Owen, Alta., and Camrose, Alta.

Why they shine: Teamed up to create a free e-newsletter for United Church youth, and sent out their first issue of W.H.Y. (Wondering Holy Youth) in September 2006. W.H.Y. keeps youth in the loop about events and mission work, explores faith and social justice issues, and seeks to inspire youth to make a difference.

Their impact: Mary Ann Pastuck, a minister at Camrose United where Kerr grew up, says, “I think it’s been an education for older folks that we have some younger folks who are very involved in the church, who have something to say, and say it well.”

What’s next: Switzer and Kerr hope more readers will send them articles, poems and pictures. They plan to continue publishing W.H.Y. for at least a few more years.

Other accomplishments: Kerr was a commissioner at the 2006 General Council. Switzer helped bring recreational programming to orphans at a summer camp in Ukraine and is currently on the planning team for General Council Youth Forum 2009. Both have attended Alberta and Northwest Conference and collaborrated on an overnight rally for a confirmation class at Oyen United, Switzer’s home congregation.

On naming the newsletter: “We decided we needed an acronym because everything that’s good in the United Church has an acronym,” says Switzer.

Sarah Chapman
Age: 24
Hometown: Meagher’s Grant, N.S.

Why she shines: Demonstrates deep concern for others. Passionate about youth programs and seeks experiences that enrich her present and future ministry.

Last gig: Organized programs, training and activities for the GO Project, a summer mission experience at Islington United in Toronto, where youth reach out to the local community and learn how to effect change at home.

Global experience: Travelled to South Africa with her brother where they developed an easy-to-follow recreation program at a centre for special needs children.

Other accomplishments: Started the discernment process at age 17 and became a candidate for ministry two years later. Studies at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax. Served five years on the Maritime Conference Youth Forum planning team and one year as student minister at
St. Andrew’s United in Halifax. Worked as a hospital chaplain last summer. Was a member of the 2004 General Council Youth Forum design team. Started a youth group at Sackville (N.B.) United.

Her future: “I really want to do ministry within The United Church of Canada,” she says. “But I would like to stay connected with a global front, because you learn so much from other cultures and other people. That really enriches my ministry here in Canada.”

Best quote about her: “I think she’s going to be one of those people who really offers a prophetic voice around where the church is going to go,” says Michael Shewburg, youth minister and GO Project co-ordinator at Islington United.

Mitchell Anderson
Age: 18
Hometown: Meadow Lake, Sask.

Why he shines: Formerly an atheist, experienced God in his personal struggle to accept his bisexuality. Began attending Grace United, where he preached his first sermon and felt called to the ministry. Youth in his congregation turn to him for answers about their own faith, says Rev. Anja Guignon, the former minister at Grace United. “From the first time I met him, I’ve seen him as a leader.”

What drives him: “The belief that we can make the world the way God wants it to be,” he says.

Other accomplishments: Serves as Aboriginal director with the New Democratic Youth of Canada. Introduced resolutions aimed at getting more Aboriginal representation on the Supreme Court of Canada and making post-secondary education more accessible. Sits on a committee that participates in a local restorative justice program.

His future: Studying sociology and women’s studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Plans to become an ordained minister. Hopes to run as an NDP candidate in a future federal election. Beginning to learn more about his Dene culture, something his family lost touch with because of Indian residential schools. “There’s a sense of exile in that,” he says.

Best quote about him: “He’s probably better read than I am,” says Guignon. “He’s always borrowing my theology books.”

Miriam Spies
Age: 20
Hometown: Hamilton

Why she shines: Has not let cerebral palsy deter her from striving for ambitious goals within and outside the church. Enriches the lives of children and youth through her work
at Five Oaks, a United Church education centre in Paris,
Ont. Has helped to change attitudes about people with disabilities.

Accomplishments: Served at Five Oaks for more than five years in various leadership positions. Was the Five Oaks communications liaison at the summer day camp and wrote the campers’ weekly newsletter. Lives on her own and studies journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. “I proved to myself that I could be independent — and enjoy it,” she says.

Her impact: Instrumental in changes at Five Oaks that include installing a lift, creating a wheelchair-accessible labyrinth and building an accessible playground. Home church of St. Paul’s United in Dundas, Ont., now has an elevator and new entrance. “I wasn’t the reason, but I was there to encourage the project,” she says.

How she inspires: Daily life requires extra effort for Spies. But she never lets that stand in her way, observes Adam Mason, a Five Oaks co-worker.

On the United Church: “In my life, the church has given me a sense of community and belonging, a place to be myself and have others love me for me,” she says.

Her future: Journalism. Hopes to bring attention to important issues and play a role in affecting positive change.

Penny Nelson
Age: 23
Hometown: Camrose, Alta.

Why she shines: Helped start a worship “experience” (not “service”) at Garneau United  in Edmonton geared toward young adults.

What’s next: Seeking funding to continue the project. Plans to reach out to seniors residing in Garneau’s assisted living complex.

Other accomplishments: Completed a bachelor of arts in religious studies at the University of Alberta with plans to become an ordained minister. Was the first student chaplain for The United Church of Canada at the University of Alberta. Served as past co-team leader at Alberta Northwest Conference and as home group leader at the 2006 General Council. Worked at Naramata Centre in British Columbia.

On her call: “I know that God is calling me to be a leader and a listener in the church, especially at this point in time when there’s so much change happening.”

On the United Church: “I want to see it grow and develop and continue to exist. I feel the United Church has a lot more things left to say to Canada and to the world. I don’t want it to lose its voice, and young adults have such an incredibly powerful voice.”

Jesse Root
Age: 19
Hometown: London, Ont.

Why he shines: Newly elected chair of the London Conference’s Youth Forum planning committee. Currently leads its campaign for a Conference-wide boycott on bottled water and sells T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Tap water, suck it up” with proceeds donated to a campaign against the exploitation of child workers. “We’re getting ready to take this from a local regional campaign to a national campaign,” says Root.

Other accomplishments: Assists with communion, confirmation classes and Sunday school at Delaware (Ont.) United. Active in the youth and young adult network of London Conference. Was a commissioner at the 2006 General Council. Served as a volunteer at a United Church camp in Middlesex Presbytery. Studies history and political science at the University of Ottawa. Considering becoming a minister.

On his leadership abilities: “I feel like God has given me gifts to lead and communicate well. I feel that not using those gifts would be an injustice to myself, and to the people I work for.”

Best quote about him: “He’s gentle, but not afraid to bring forth his vision,” says Michael Brooks, the London Conference Youth Forum’s adult adviser.

On why the church needs young leaders: “Not a lot of people my age are really stepping up and doing a lot,” Root says. “That scares me because pretty soon, we are going to be the ones who need to be in leadership positions.” 

Jennifer McPhee is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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