Faith Matters: Orange youths prove, we can take back our communities

  • The Rev. Dr. Mary Hendrickson at the Bethany Lutheran Church in Orange. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The Rev. Dr. Mary Hendrickson at the Bethany Lutheran Church in Orange. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The Bethany Lutheran Church in Orange. Jan 16, 2018 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The Bethany Lutheran Church in Orange. Jan 16, 2018 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Pastor, Bethany Lutheran and Mission Covenant churches of Orange
Friday, January 26, 2018

(Each Saturday, a faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email religion@recorder.com or call 413-772-0261, ext. 265.)

Last week, I attended a forum on the needs of the youth of Orange. Being fairly new to the area, I had a lot to learn. Out of all of the information shared, what caught my attention was the history of the turnaround at Ralph Mahar Regional School. You see, not all that long ago the school struggled with drugs, violence, arrests, and was not a safe place to be. Now, all of that is behind them. More kids than ever are clean from addiction, arrests are almost unheard of, violence is rare and kids love having a safe place to learn.

So what do you think happened? I’ll bet you assume that some program or curriculum was a magic bullet that fixed it all. Or maybe that the administrators and teachers finally “laid down the law” and got the students in line. If that is what you are thinking, though, then you are wrong. Of course, the adults did everything they could, because they deeply care about their students. But in the end, it was the students themselves who rose up, took charge and essentially said, “NO MORE!” They used peer pressure as their tool to change their school into what it is today — a safe, hope-filled environment where students deeply care about one another, where teachers are able to finally actually teach, and where the school has regained pride in itself.

Hm-m ... could it be possible to learn from the youth? They decided that rather than accept the condition of their school experience as the status quo, rather than to spend their time and energy grumbling and depressed over how bad it was, rather than becoming part of the problem, instead to “be the change (they) wish(ed) to see in their [school]” (Mahatma Gandhi). Our communities are in deep crisis. How can we become the change for which we are longing?

I want you to imagine something. Think about all of your families and neighbors, focusing upon what they are good at doing. You know, the lady next door who absolutely loves her garden. The guy who’s always doing some new project. The girl who is passionate about using power tools (yes, girls like that exist!). The boy who is an amazing chef. Now, what if all of those people were empowered and equipped to serve our western Mass. communities? What if the community churches and town agencies and organizations combined resources to make a difference? What if, instead of hanging our heads in depression and hopelessness, we decided to be proactive, to change our communities from the bottom up? What if the people of our communities refused to buy drugs and let the dealers know that they were no longer welcome in our community? And finally, what if we helped one another to learn basic life skills — money management, personal hygiene, parenting and marriage skills, property care, and so many other possibilities?

Yes, you will likely say that I am unrealistic. After all, it’s been so many years since our communities have thrived. So what? If a group of kids can take back their school, then certainly we can also say, “NO MORE!” and determine to do the same with our communities. The Bible says, “With God ALL things are possible” and “I can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens me.” Oh and one more: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

It is time to realize that we are not trapped in our circumstances. We are only in bondage to our lack of conviction to make them change. I choose to step into my community, looking for how God can use me to make a difference. How about you?

Last November Rev. Dr. Mary Hendrickson was surprised to be given the opportunity to become the Pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Orange. She was called last spring to pastor Mission Covenant Church, also of Orange. During her discernment of her Covenant call, Dr. Hendrickson became convinced that she is called to be a pastor to the community, not just to a congregation. This new call to Bethany confirmed that discernment. She is looking forward to how her life and call in Orange unfolds in the future.