Under a cloudless summer sky, a dozen young people sit clustered at picnic tables, looking sleepy in the morning sun. A warm breeze stirs up scents of sunscreen, bug spray and manure. As the teens fiddle with work gloves and bandanas, Meredith Hinton tries to help them understand why they’re giving up a week of vacation to work in scorching heat on a North Carolina farm.
She tells them about another mission trip a few summers back, one that she took to help flood victims salvage their wrecked homes. For a solid week, she shoveled muddy sludge from a dank basement, filling buckets that were emptied into a river.
“You might be doing things this week that won’t seem like much fun,” she tells the group. “But I hope you find precious moments to help you realize that God is proud of you, God loves you, and God wants to use you to do good things in his world.”
A 2014 Duke Divinity School graduate, Meredith leads Summit Student Ministries, a cooperative effort among 10 United Methodist congregations in the rural North Carolina mountains. The idea is to work together with pooled resources to engage young people and help them grow as leaders in the church.
After one year, Summit has exceeded expectations and is already providing a model for other rural churches in creating opportunities for youth. A $150,000 grant from The Duke Endowment supports the work.
“Recent studies show that people under 30 are leaving the church, and oftentimes I think it’s because they don’t sense a place of belonging,” Meredith says. “The goal of this ministry is for youth to feel as though they belong in the church – that even if their congregation is small, they still have an opportunity to get involved in big ways.”
Meredith and her husband, Brad, live in rural Burnsville, where Brad is the pastor of three churches that are participating in Summit. They met when she was in her first year at divinity school and he was in his third. The couple married in Duke Chapel, one week after her graduation. They share the parsonage with their plott hound, Bear.
Growing up in North Carolina, Meredith says she always felt connected to her church. Even when she was a teen herself, she knew her “lifelong calling” was to work with young people. She loves their curiosity, their interest, and the way they’re bold with their questions. The best part of her job, she says, is “getting to hang out with them, laugh hysterically, and be inspired by their hearts.”
With stories in the news about school violence, cyberbullying and teen suicide, Meredith believes we live in critical times for teens.
“The goal of this ministry is to walk alongside them so they can find acceptance and grace in their lives,” she says. “I think the church can be the best place for them to see that they are loved.”
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church