If you asked 4-year-old Lilly Miglia what she likes best about church, she will say “drawing pictures.” And “being in here,” referring to the nursery room with bright walls and lots of crayons. A pragmatist, Lilly will then turn away from you and return to her project.
Every week Lilly joins up to 85 other children, youth and adults for Wednesday Night Live, an intergenerational after-school program of Faith Lutheran Church in Marion, Iowa. In addition to the blending of ages, the program integrates mind, body and spirit as the schedule includes homework time, large motor games, discussion, Bible study, confirmation and a hot meal.
While Lilly is beginning her experience with Wednesday Night Live, Michelle George is a 30-year veteran, having begun when she was 10. Today she volunteers as a table parent, committing to sit with the same group of youth each week, eat with them, ask about their day, teach basic manners and model kindness.
Even after three decades, the program is important to George because “it provides a safe place for kids to just be themselves. Kids these days get so much pressure from the world — from teachers, peers, parents. It is nice to have time set aside each week where they are reminded that they are precious just for being who they are.”
The Wednesday Night Live table dynamics are further enhanced by the fact that there is no scrimping in menus, which are kid-friendly, well-balanced and good-tasting. The dinners are cooked by rotating teams and served family style.
Even though this program has run for decades, it isn’t a members-only club. Presently 55 youth are registered, but they set the dinner table for 85. The group is intentional about saving room at the table for guests, visiting parents and volunteers.
The church building is a modern looking facility located under a big sky in a Cedar Falls suburb. Some afternoons might be quiet, but certainly not Wednesdays. The bustle comes in waves starting with the first surge of senior high youth who arrive at 3:30 p.m. for study club. A sign at the front door reads: “We want you to succeed in school, and we want to help!”
Youth scatter about with their laptops, textbooks and band instruments. Some work on their own projects while others mentor younger students.
One of the youth mentors is John Hood, a high school senior who attends Wednesday Night Live with his younger sister, Renae. The siblings started coming just after their dad died, when they were in sixth and seventh grade. They had just moved to the community and their mother had hoped the program would be a way for the two to cope with their loss and meet friends. Five years later, the brother and sister are leaders. Both said they enjoy working with the children and envision their futures in helping professions.
“If you’re having a bad day, you get over it fast coming here because the kids make you feel better,” said Renae, who wants to be a teacher.
Ninth-grader Carter Waelchli does his homework during study hour but may be required to attend the Wednesday program since he is the pastor’s kid, a role that “is complicated,” he said.
Carter, a freethinker and good with words, is credited with asking an intelligent question to a prominent presidential candidate (while campaigning for the Iowa caucuses) in which the response “went like, super viral and went everywhere.”
Carter has ideas: The church needs to stay relevant by getting out there and “doing some important stuff and not just being the old stereotype of sitting and listening for like two hours. Advancing new ideas would be really more helpful for everybody, not just for the pastors and the geeks like me, but for the whole community.”
At Wednesday Night Live, the tone is set for children and youth to think generously. For example, Katie Barnidge, a fifth-grader, said some of the aspects she likes best about the program are ice cream sandwiches, God and crab soccer. If you raise your brows at the latter, she will explain it’s “crawling in reverse.”
Lydia Lines, a ninth-grader, said she likes how the confirmation teaching style is open to questions.
Hank Gerst, 11th grade, has been coming to Wednesday Night Live for 14 years. When asked what Jesus’ central message is, he said, “Treat your neighbor as yourself.”
While a variety of ideas and opinions flow, there is an obvious common denominator: love of one another. From the nursery to the kitchen to the youth room, when asking anyone the best part about this program, the consensus is: the people.
“Wednesday Night Live gives the whole congregation the opportunity to grow meaningful relationships,” said Danny Stone, Faith’s director of youth and family ministries. “We believe faith is caught, not taught.”
Lilly may be too young to articulate what it means to be part of a loving community, but she likely knows exactly what it is. She might say it’s delicious food, good friends, people who care, a servant Jesus, a God of love. One thing is certain, Lilly has already learned about Christian hospitality because she brings a friend to Wednesday Night Live.