Leaders in Training: preteens serve inner-city San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO—The sullen teenager cracked a smile when an exuberant fifth grader handed him a nametag sporting a smiley face. At 14, he was too old for Kids Power Camp at San Antonio’s Riverside apartments, but he was tagging along with two friends, Theone (pronounced “the one”) and Angel, brothers who had recently started attending Genesis Baptist Church nearby.

The adult leader sent counselor-in-training Tommy to talk to the boys and begin building relationships. What happened as the week progressed is the stuff of miracles, which the adults and preteens involved in Hillcrest Baptist Church’s Leadership in Training (LIT) program are still processing.

In July, 89 preteens and adults from Cedar Hills’ Hillcrest, Retta Baptist Church of Burleson, First Baptist Church of Henderson and Great Hills Baptist Church of Austin trekked south to San Antonio to partner with Genesis Baptist to minister to the surrounding low-income community.

The kids were well-prepared to lead camps for children at six apartment complexes near Genesis, just minutes southeast of downtown. They had begun intensive training at Hillcrest in January.

“We teach them how to teach, how to evangelize, how to tell stories, how to explain the gospel, how to play and lead games, how to help children memorize scripture,” said Karen Kennemur, assistant professor of childhood education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillcrest missions trainer, describing the LIT program developed by Clinton May.

“LIT helps kids identify who they are in Christ, helping them discover spiritual gifts and talents, empowering and equipping them to share the gospel and to live out their faith,” said Keri Meek, Hillcrest children’s minister. 

Following a semester of training, LIT preteens go on a mission trip to practice what they have learned. Adults accompany the group at a nearly one-to-one ratio, but the kids do the work.

“It is the practicum for what they have learned all spring,” Meek said, adding that Hillcrest has offered LIT for four years.

The July trip was their first to San Antonio’s Genesis.

It all started in 2013 with a conversation at an SBTC Texas One Day event between Kennemur, a presenter, and Lorena Beltran, wife of Genesis pastor Edward Beltran, who attended Kennemur’s sessions.

“I mentioned that I take fifth and sixth graders on mission trips, and she told me about their inner-city church in San Antonio,” Kennemur recalled.

That initial chat led to further conversations. Soon Meek was involved and made plans to send the preteens to the Alamo City in 2014. 

On a Memorial Day 2014 preview trip, Meek identified several apartment complexes within walking distance of Genesis as targets for evangelism.

“We wanted to help the Beltrans reach their community,” Meek said. “That’s where their hearts were. They had been praying for years that God would help them reach the community he had placed them in.”

Meek and the Beltrans contacted apartment managers, asking permission to put on free kids’ programs including lunch for a week in July.

“It’s a win for the apartment because we are doing something with their kids. And it’s a win for the church as they connect with the community.  The ultimate win is to be able to share the gospel with these kids,” Meek said.

Contacts made, Meek found an area church willing to house the group in July.

Plans were made for ministry at five apartment sites; God had other ideas. After the first day of Kids Power Camp, teams were shifted, supplies shuffled and an additional site added.

“God always wanted that site,” Meek told the group. “I told them that sometimes what we have planned is not what God has planned.”

“Today I learned that change can be good,” an LIT sixth grade boy announced during the next evening’s sharing time. He had befriended a child at the new site.

Sixteen children came to camp at that site and several professed Christ, Meek said, adding that of the 250 children and adults crowding Genesis for Thursday night’s praise time, the newest housing complex was disproportionately represented.

The week’s schedule was rigorous for kids and adults alike. Mornings began with breakfast, worship and planning, including the packing of over 200 lunches daily for workers and kids at the sites.
“We coach the kids on testimonies and stories. We want them to be equipped before they go out,” Kennemur said.

Teams deployed to the sites from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. where they led Vacation Bible School-type activities. Afternoons were spent doing service projects, fun activities or unwinding at the host church. Days ended with dinner, worship and sharing.

“At Kids Power Camp, our kids welcome the kids, register the kids, play icebreaker games and lead music. The kids do everything. The adults are there to talk to the parents,” Kennemur explained, adding that many parents stayed to observe each day in San Antonio.

“A bilingual dad was saved the first day of camp after talking to some of the LIT adults. He came back every day and served as translator,” Meek said.

“Some of the kids spoke Spanish only. We did not take a translator with us. God knew the need, and he sent somebody,” she added.

“Not only was he saved the first day, but he was learning Bible stories and verses all week. God was discipling him as he was helping. He is now connected to Genesis,” Kennemur said.

The Hillcrest LIT teams will never forget their San Antonio experience. Plans are underway for a repeat visit next summer.

“Typically we go to a new place of ministry each summer. However, our experience with Genesis was unique. We feel a heart connection with the pastor and the church members. We look forward to working together in the future,” Kennemur said.

As for the once-recalcitrant teen who accompanied Theone and Angel? He has found a relationship with Jesus Christ, the true One, thanks to the friendship developed with Tommy.

On Friday, as the Hillcrest vans pulled up to Genesis a final time with plans to clean the church, throngs of children, now new friends, ran to greet them. They will be back.

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