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Mentoring programs prepare African-American youth for adulthood


Mentoring programs prepare African-American youth for adulthood
May 12, 2005       

By Rori Francis Blakeney*
ATLANTA (UMNS)—Donnella Cranford says she is called to train up a new generation of Esthers.
“God charged Esther with an important undertaking,” Cranford says of the biblical queen who saved the Jewish people from destruction. “We are here to raise up modern-day Esthers.”
Cranford, a United Methodist lay person in Atlanta, is founder of Women After God’s Own Heart, a mentoring ministry in which older Christian women help African-American teen girls become healthy adults. For the past year, Cranford and several other women have helped 19 teens grow in their faith and prepare for adulthood. The girls completed the program, Debutantes for Christ, with a formal cotillion in March.
“It changed my life,” says Eleah McClamb, a 17-year-old member of Cascade United Methodist Church. “Every time I make a decision, I think, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I realize that I do have an effect on people.”
The mentoring ministry is among many “rites of passage” programs developed since the 1980s. Such programs are gaining momentum among African-American churches seeking to usher their youth into the faith, according to Marilyn Thornton, development editor for African American resources at the United Methodist Publishing House.
Rites of passage mark the significant milestones in a young person’s development, initiating them into healthy, responsible adulthood through training, introspection, rituals, mentoring, service and more. They are opportunities for acknowledging a young person’s “coming of age” by honoring his or her growth and changes, answering questions and helping the young person find a place in society.
Much of today’s “rites of passage” curriculum has developed based on gender issues, spirituality and ethnic or cultural background.
This year, the Publishing House published “Daughters of Imani: Christian Rites of Passage for African American Young Women,” a mentoring curriculum for girls 8-18. It published a similar resource for boys called “Young Lions: A Christian Rites of Passage Program for African American Men” in 2001.
The Rev. Chris McNair, an elder in the denomination’s Minnesota Annual (regional) Conference, was serving Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis when he was inspired to develop “Young Lions.”
“I knew (the church) would miss a lot of students. I had the task of creating something that would hold the interest of young African-American boys,” McNair says.
“Young Lions” emphasizes positive peer group involvement, hands-on skill development, knowledge of the African American culture and a relationship with Christian men as role models.
Rites of passage programs are similar to confirmation classes but designed to reach a broader group of young people. Many United Methodist churches use them as an evangelism tool.
“‘Young Lions’ is cultural, but it is also Christian,” McNair says. “It presents the Gospel to African-American boys in a relative way. It does target young people who are not in the life of the church. The program opens the door for evangelism.”
In general, rites of passage ministries for African Americans address issues such as goal setting, etiquette, career planning and community service from a biblical perspective. Some present cultural and societal issues and then weave in the spiritual dimensions. To build friendships and support, programs often include social activities, such as trips to the theater, community service projects and sleepovers.
The Rev. Herbert Lester, pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn., believes today’s culture has neglected the importance of rites of passage that mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood. As a result, he says, many young people live in a state of perpetual adolescence, refusing to assume the responsibilities and trusts of adulthood. 

“Rites of passage programs that involve the community are an act of spiritual formation,” Lester says. “It is an act of evangelism. We do it in hopes that (the community) will become a part of our community of faith. The goal is to form Christian character.”
Christian character is what Ida Crook, a member of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta, wanted to instill in the 27 participants of her program, Cascade Christian Debutantes/Beaux Rites of Passage. She and Cranford want to go around the country setting up similar programs at different churches.
“The ultimate goal is to help young people understand that you can have Christ in your life and not be a nerd,” Crook says. “You can be a good Christian and have a strong social life.”
Crook’s program worked with both young men and women at the same time because “I wanted them to learn together,” she says. “We must live together. The world is made of men and women.”
Each session opened with a prayer and Scripture. “I wanted them to know the Bible is a source of reference for everyday living, that they could always go back to the Bible during different stages in life,” Crook says.
The biblical story of Esther is presented as a model for young women through the Women After God’s Own Heart program. The Bible teaches that Esther spent a year preparing herself for her God-given task and then saved her people from destruction. In that year, Esther took time to beautify and develop herself spiritually with the help of a eunuch, a servant to the king.
“I think that those eunuchs worked with (Esther) to prepare her to be a leader. She had to know how to stand out above the other women,” Cranford says.
LaToya Yates, one of this year’s debutantes, says just hearing Esther’s story was helpful. The program turned her into a kinder, gentler person and improved her attitude, she says. She also remembers the session about spiritual gifts because she discovered she had the gift of leadership.
“I didn’t think of myself as a leader before, but after the session I saw that I could do more,” says Yates, 16.
Just as Esther was charged with talking to the king to set her people free, the girls are charged to talk to other people to set them free from social bondage, Cranford says.
“We remind them that God has prepared them for such a time as this.”

*Blakeney is a freelance writer in Atlanta where he is a member of Cascade UMC and is pursuing the ordained ministry.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, (615) 742-5470 or

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