Building a 'Circle of Care'

September 27, 2012
Building a 'Circle of Care'
Tim Crellin and Liz Steinhauser. HDS photo: Jonathan Beasley

It happened by chance. Liz Steinhauser, MDiv '96, was going for an afternoon walk in Boston's South End nearly 10 years ago when she saw Tim Crellin, also MDiv '96, standing on the sidewalk outside St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, where Crellin was (and still is) the vicar.

The two were long-lost friends from their time at Harvard Divinity School together, yet the random encounter laid the foundation for B-Safe and B-Ready, which together form one of the most active youth programs in the city of Boston and are run out of St. Stephen's.

At the time she ran into Crellin, Steinhauser had been doing community organizing and working with teenagers a few blocks from the parish. She was active in a Roman Catholic church, but she had gotten to the point where she felt that it wasn't the right fit for her any longer. She spoke to some people with whom she had been doing community organizing with, including an Episcopal priest, and decided to return to St. Stephen's for a visit.  

"I walked into the church one Sunday and got a warm welcome, which is what people get when they come here," explained Steinhauser. "It was then that I started to attend regularly."

Soon after joining the congregation, Steinhauser began to think about ordination. At the same time, a job opportunity at the church opened up. Crellin had been able to secure funding for a five-year position for a director of youth programs, and Steinhauser was looking for a new job, ideally one that would allow her to work with kids in a faith setting.

"I did a big search," Crellin said from his ground-floor office at the church, "but I begged her to take the job."

St. Stephen's is a mission church of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. It is a congregation in a neighborhood where the community cannot support the cost of having a church and, as a result, the diocese subsidizes the ministry.

"This congregation is really diverse," Crellin said. "There are a large number of Latino families who attend the parish, but there are also families from all sorts of backgrounds: young, old, gay, straight, Puerto Rican, Central American, West Indian. We have a really wonderful mix of people."

After graduating from Brown University, Crellin worked at St. Stephen's for two years before attending Harvard Divinity School. He was a youth worker and assisted with the church's programming. He returned to the church on a permanent basis in 1999 after being ordained in 1996.

"All along the way from when I first came 13 years ago up through now, the congregation has really gotten behind the work we do for young people," Crellin explained, "which is nice because not every congregation would support having the clergy spend so much time working on outreach programs."

Steinhauser, who was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 2008, has been at St. Stephen's for nine years. When she first arrived, her priorities were to pay attention to what was working and to continue those practices, but also to listen to what people needed and add those things to the program.

"As with any organization, the life of this congregation has had peaks and valleys," Steinhauser said. "When Tim came here, the church was at one of its valleys in terms of the congregation. But by doing the programming and the outreach work, the neighborhood and the congregation are now stronger."

The program has grown substantially from the roughly 20 elementary-school-age kids it first saw back in 2000. After initial successes, Crellin and Steinhauser were challenged by the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts to grow the program beyond the walls of St. Stephen's and to plant other sites.

The church now runs two sites year-round. They have afterschool and summer programs at St. Stephen's and at the Church of St. Augustine and St. Martin in lower Roxbury. In addition, they added four summer-only programs: two in Dorchester, one in Mattapan, and one in Chelsea. The programs are all run out of Episcopal churches or an Episcopal school, and they are administered and managed by St. Stephen's.  

"Each location has a similar feel, a similar buzz of activity, a sense of hospitality and of learning and of having fun," Steinhauser said. "This summer, the program serves about 600 young people system-wide. About 100 of them are teenagers who have jobs, primarily through the city of Boston."

There are also 75 adults who work in the program. The adults have the responsibility for watching the young people, and they are assisted by teens, who are both participants and staff.

"The idea is that a young person will start with the program when they are around five years old and then will work with St. Stephen's until they are in their 20s," Steinhauser explained. "So, they get to have academic enrichment when they are elementary age. Then they have some leadership opportunities and service projects when they are in middle school, and they get jobs and have all sorts of other opportunities—community organizing, mission trips to other places, academic support—when they are teenagers."

Crellin and Steinhauser believe that it takes year-round involvement to give youth the support they are not getting elsewhere—whether in the community, at home, or at school.

"It's just being here and being a pastoral presence, building relationships with the kids' teachers and with the schools, and just helping to build a circle of care around every kid," Crellin said. "Being part of that circle and helping to build that circle is how we think we can make a difference in the long term."

There is no requirement that the kids who attend either the summer or the afterschool program be members of an Episcopal congregation, and there is no religious education as part of the program. The overall goal, Steinhauser said, is that they are building communities where everybody 'feels big'—or feels a sense of accomplishment.

The youth are placed in groups of 15 and are arranged according to age. During the day, they rotate through the different activities. There is time for arts and crafts, and there is time for reading and writing. There is time for music and dance, and there is a technology lab where they learn how to use computers. There are science classes and opportunities for physical fitness activities.

"All the evidence shows that doing programs like this stops the summer learning slide," Steinhauser said. "Research has shown that if kids don't do programs like this, it takes them until November to get back to what they knew in June. It's not what happens during the school day or school year, but what happens in afterschool time and in summer time that makes the difference between the gap in achievement. So, by doing programs like this, the kids at least go back to school in September where they were in June and are ready to get back into the routine and swing of learning."

St. Stephen's has built a network of partnerships with roughly 50 other Episcopal churches in the suburbs of Boston. During the summer, volunteers from each one of the 50 churches take one week of the program at one of the sites and provide lunch for the youth and staff. On Fridays, churches help to organize the field trips outside Boston, such as at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and at Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island.

As successful as the program is, there are still numerous challenges.

"The thing that I lie awake at night worrying about is fundraising," Crellin said. "We used to have a budget of $25,000 for youth programs, and now it's close to a million dollars. When you think about how many kids we serve, that's actually a very small amount of money per kid."

Aside from the financial aspect of keeping the program afloat while continuing to add new types of programming, Crellin worries about the youth.

"Kids have hard lives," he said. "Because of poverty and racism and the way the schools are, and violence and drugs, kids have a lot of bad things happen to them and their families. It's been a challenge to be here for a long time and to get to get to be a part of people's lives and then to see what they are going through."

Until recently, St. Stephen's had difficulty working collaboratively with local schools, especially the nearby Blackstone Elementary School, where many of the program's youth are enrolled.

Blackstone is one of the largest elementary schools in Boston. Along with 35 other schools across Massachusetts, in 2010 it was designated as a Level 4 underperforming school, or "Turnaround School."

"For a long time they had an administration at Blackstone that was not really open to partnership," Steinhauser said. "And then a new principal came in and had a vision for how schools should be, and there was an immediate change in the openness of the school, both with the family involvement and the community organization involvement."

Over the last two years, St. Stephen's has continued to grow relationships with teachers and with the administration. They have organized service days to improve classrooms and to paint bathrooms and hallways; they have created a revamped library space; and they have helped to grow the school's greenhouse while building a relationship with a restaurant group in the South End.

In late May of this year, officials from the Obama administration came to Boston to witness first-hand the turnaround that has taken place at the Blackstone School. Joshua DuBois, head of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, received a tour of the school and then visited St. Stephen's to observe the afterschool program.

"We showed the possibility of starting small, developing relationships with teachers, and listening to what people were saying," Steinhauser said. "We saw that there was a need at the school, so we picked a few things to address that seemed doable."

The roots of Crellin and Steinhauser's friendship took hold in the fall of 1993—their first semester at HDS. They met in 'Introduction to Theological Education for Ministry,' which was a required course for first-year master of divinity candidates. (The course's successor is 'Introduction to Ministry Studies,' taught by HDS faculty members Stephanie Paulsell and Dudley Rose.)

"You were in small groups and there was a lot of reflection, especially about what you wanted out of your experience in the course and at Harvard," Crellin explained. "The groups were intentionally diverse. People came from all different types of backgrounds, reflecting on readings and writings together. It was a fairly intense group. We got to be friends and we were also friends with the same group of people."

Steinhauser grew up outside New York City. She worked in Louisiana doing union organizing in Baton Rouge for a year and then moved to Washington, D.C., and became involved in public-health work for a nonprofit Catholic organization.

As a young, Catholic woman, the examples that Steinhauser had for ministry were mostly campus chaplains. She thought that she would become a lay campus chaplain, and so when she began looking at divinity schools, she was looking for a place that would prepare her for campus ministry and that would also be welcoming of Catholics and lesbians.

"I had an experience at HDS where I got to meet Tim, which was pretty much the best thing that happened," Steinhauser said with a smile. "I would say Harvard gave me a lot more preparation than I realized at the time. I took a community organizing class with Marshall Ganz that was cross-listed between the Kennedy School and the Divinity School, and that was incredibly helpful. I think the skills that I bring to this position are a reflection of what I learned from that course."

At HDS, she did field education placements at Brigham and Women's Hospital and at the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester. She also did a tutoring and organizing placement that she set up independently.

"These were all things that helped to prepare me for the work I'm doing now. I also took this great class that I think was called 'The Black Church and Community Development. It was taught by a minster in Brooklyn, and he came up once a week to teach the class at HDS."

Crellin had looked at several other local schools before deciding to attend HDS. He was offered a Williams Fund Fellowship at HDS, which was given to students showing "substantial promise for ministry."

"When you are in the Episcopal ordination track, you have to prepare for the general ordination exams, so I knew that I could get really good preparation at HDS and then take some Episcopal-specific courses at Episcopal Divinity School and at the BTI. I loved digging into classes with Helmut Koester. They were really academically intense and rigorous."

Crellin says that his "claim to fame," as he puts it, is that his senior thesis—under the guidance of legendary HDS professor Richard Niebuhr—became an outline for the Episcopal Diocese to build a camp and conference center for youth.

To Crellin's delight, the diocese turned his proposal into reality and built the center, named the Barbara Harris Camp and Conference Center, on a site in Greenfield, New Hampshire, on property that Crellin found. St. Stephen's takes about 125 of the older kids up to the site at the end of each summer.

"This is all an enormous investment," Steinhauser said. "Great things happen, but we finish at 4 pm during the summer, and there are a lot of forces of evil out there. When you only have young people for a certain number of hours, there are a lot of other influences that can happen when they leave here."

In many ways, the parish has become a model for how an urban church can serve as a vital centerpiece within a city neighborhood. Through their fortitude and hard work—work whose impact is often difficult to measure—Crellin and Steinhauser are making a difference in the lives of hundreds of kids across the city of Boston.

—by Jonathan Beasley