NEWARK ACTS has been a highly successful urban service program that for the past seven years has transformed the lives of more than 50 young adults from both here and abroad. Their efforts have benefited dozens of organizations and congregations throughout the Diocese of Newark. Now as our diocese prepares to call its next bishop in 2018, a new diocesan profile for the bishop is being created and a diocesan-wide survey is being initiated. Accordingly, a decision has been made to place the 2017-2018 program year for NEWARK ACTS on hold, allowing the new diocesan leadership to review the present program and determine its future. This transition offers an excellent opportunity to celebrate the significant achievements of this dynamic program's first seven years.
NEWARK ACTS is a service-learning program for young adults built on a commitment to social justice, community service, spiritual formation, and life in community. Since it began in 2010, the program has had over 50 interns as participants. Each year an average of nine interns, most in their twenties, have been chosen to live in community at two separate urban locations in the Diocese of Newark. Working each day at local organizations or churches that have a distinct social mission, the interns have served for 11 months, receiving a modest stipend, housing, board, travel expenses, and, if needed, health insurance.
A key element of the program is that groups of interns live together under one roof and take responsibility for creating a covenant and a rule of life for their household. The experience is further enriched by the opportunities for common meals, discussions, and daily devotions. This all works to further the organization’s mission of nurturing young adults “to become community leaders with a heart for ministry, an understanding for the complexities of urban life, and a deep spirituality that integrates their desire to serve with a passion for justice and peace.”
The program’s first director, the Rev. Deacon Erik Soldwedel, began his work in June 2010. Born and raised in the Diocese of Newark, Soldwedel’s first call had been as a part-time chaplain at Jersey City’s Christ Hospital. His people skills were quickly recognized when the diocese needed a director for the launch of the NEWARK ACTS program. Soldwedel served admirably in the position for six years.
Kaileen Alston, who worked for 13 years as diocesan Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, was a founding member of the NEWARK ACTS board. She headed the search process for a director and eventually became Soldwedel’s direct supervisor. “Erik has a heart as big as the galaxy,” Alston recently said. “He’s passionate about helping people be the best people they can be. Sometimes he would come to tears telling me about some of the interns.”
Soldwedel remembers the early days of the program as an exciting time when many new things were learned everyday – and also when “my phone was on 24/7!” He recalls working very closely with Alston during that first year and that “one of the first things we learned was to give the interns their space.” Alston agrees. “There’s a certain dance you need to do with young adults,” she says. “They’re quick to remind you they’re adults. But they still need advice and direction… more advice than direction, actually.”
Both Soldwedel and Alston credit Bishop Mark Beckwith with having first suggested the program in 2009. After learning about programs for young adults that the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC) had sponsored in other dioceses, Bishop Beckwith suggested to Alston that such a program might be started in the Diocese of Newark. NEWARK ACTS has partnered with the ESC, an organization that now has 30 such sites throughout the Episcopal Church. A board was formed and, with the help of start-up funding from Trinity Church, Wall Street, the position of director was created. But in addition to talented leadership, two other elements were key to the program’s success: interns and placement sites.
“They’re like nieces and nephews to me now,” Soldwedal says about the many interns he helped shepherd through the program. As a group, the interns have been the embodiment of diversity — racially, ethnically, in sexual orientation, and in religious and educational backgrounds. For many, NEWARK ACTS was a reintroduction to the church. For some, it was their first experience of a non-judgmental church that values all God’s children. Serving as an intern was for many a life changing experience. Fifteen chose to continue working in or near the diocese after their program year ended. Many new teachers were raised up, as well as ten social workers, and two clergy, one Episcopal and the other Lutheran. One of them, the Rev. Richard Hogue, served as an intern for two years before he entered seminary and was eventually ordained. Many felt his decision to pursue ordained ministry was a long time in coming, but it seems to have been greatly furthered by his time as a NEWARK ACTS intern.
Transformation also took place in the dozens of intern placement sites. Organizations hosting interns included the shelter and day school at All Saints, Hoboken; the Jubilee Center, Hoboken; Seamen’s Church Institute, New York; Christ Hospital, Jersey City; Philip’s Academy Charter School, Newark; and the Community Shelter in Irvington. Hosting congregations included Christ Church, Harrison; St. George’s, Maplewood; and St. Andrew & Holy Communion, South Orange, among many others.
Last summer Dunstanette Macauley succeeded Soldwedel as director of NEWARK ACTS. A lay person in her early twenties, Macauley brought impressive experience to the job. A 2015 graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in public health, she has participated in numerous youth events, as well as serving as a deputy to General Convention. Macauley says her relationship with God has grown stronger because of the religious environment found in the Diocese of Newark. While she is considering ordination, her long-range career plans also involve continuing to work with youth and young adult ministries in the church. “We are so deeply grateful to Dunstanette for the wonderful job she has done as director this past year,” said Bishop Beckwith, “and we are certain she will bring the same talent and commitment to her next assignment in the church.”
The Rev. Deacon Erik Soldwedel, Dunstanette Macauley and Kaileen Alston.
Though NEWARK ACTS interns have been formally introduced at Diocesan Convention each year, the deeply transformative nature of this program could not be conveyed in so short a time. Looking back over seven years, the cumulative number of lives touched by NEWARK ACTS is impressive and inspiring. At the heart of it all are the stories of young adults discovering themselves and the difference they can make in the world by living out their baptismal covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”