Tulsa teens' network extends nationwide
By CHRIS SCHUTZ, Contributing Writer
For a group of youths at St. James United Methodist Church in Tulsa, the simple act of ringing a doorbell or knocking on the door of an unknown family can be the toughest part of their evening.
The youths are part of a program called love.network, which started at St. James UMC in 2010. During a study of the apostolic church, the students wanted to learn what life was like for Jesus’ disciples as they communicated the Gospel.
The youth group came up with what seems a simple concept. They visit houses in the neighborhood of the church, ring doorbells, and ask a question people might not often hear: "How can we pray for you?"
"The hardest part was moving past people’s preconceived notions as to why we were doing this," said Cody Jefferson, youth pastor and director of creative media at St. James.
It was tough for some people to accept that "we didn’t want anything from them other than a relationship," Jefferson said. "We weren’t trying to push our church on them."
Their idea has spread nationally to an estimated 250 churches, many of them United Methodist, Jefferson said. He estimated about 20 churches in Oklahoma have joined the love.network.
One member of the first group of youths to venture out into the St. James neighborhood was Micah Peters, 20, who is now a sophomore nursing student at Oklahoma State University.
The first knock on a door is always tough, she said. It can be discouraging when several people in a row say, "No, I’m not interested," and close their doors.
But other times the young visitors are invited inside to hear a family’s story, Peters said. "That keeps you going the rest of the night."
The youths learn that behind those doors are some tragic stories. A mother has talked about her military son who was killed in Iraq; parents spoke of a prodigal child; a man who had lost his job feared he wouldn’t be able to keep his house.
Jefferson said he has worked to spread the word about love.network through talks at churches around the country. St. James has received hundreds of emails from churches interested in joining the network.
Love.network also caught the interest of the adults at St. James. The age range of participants is now "11 to 70," Jefferson said.
Now the St. James’ groups are a familiar sight in the neighborhood, and some of the neighbors have come to services at the church.
Peters said she was so impressed with love.network that she hopes to implement something similar at OSU. Making a face-to-face interaction "just makes a connection just so much deeper than (giving someone) a flier," she said.
Love.network takes place on one Wednesday each month, starting at 6:30 p.m., Jefferson said. Participants divide into groups of about 10 to visit the neighborhood. Each group makes its rounds with one or two adult sponsors.
Jefferson said the church limits the size of the groups so neighbors are not overwhelmed by the potential sight of a crowd of 50 people at their doors.
Sometimes participants start conversation by handing out small gifts – a bottle of cold water for people doing yard work in the summer, Easter eggs in the spring, tiny pumpkins for children to decorate in the fall.
Armed with clipboards, each group spends about an hour visiting 20 houses, gathering names and requests for prayer.
The group usually does its praying after making the rounds, but sometimes prayer takes place on the spot, Jefferson said. "We circle up and join hands, and we’re praying on porches."
The experience can be an eye-opener, especially for the youths, he said. "We’re giving our students the tools necessary to be whatever God wants them to be."