Children learning how to love themselves and others at Watertown First UMC
Editor’s Note: A Little Child Will Lead Us is a recipient of a $2,500 Everyday Disaster grant from the Upper New York Conference’s Mission Central HUB. As one mother stated, this ministry has healed many children from underprivileged backgrounds and has helped them blossom.
There are many theories as to why children are no longer in our churches, especially our smaller churches. Some say that kids are involved in activities—they’re at ice hockey rinks, soccer fields, or dance studios. Others say that families are so busy during the week shuffling their children around to activities that Sundays are their days to catch up on chores and other obligations. And many families don’t feel like forcing children to go to something they find “boring.”
When the Rev. Anne Canfield was appointed to Watertown First United Methodist Church in 2019, she had one child in her church. However, she noticed that the church once had a vibrant children’s ministry. She could tell from all the rooms upstairs in her church. The bookshelves were still lined with children’s books; there were toys, craft supplies, and baby swings. She even found snacks like boxes of graham crackers that expired more than 20 years ago!
How could she bring the children back to church?
Rev. Canfield said, “I talked to people and their thoughts about having kids at church were, ‘It would never work. We could never do it. Everybody’s at a soccer field and yet I would walk around and see poor kids in particular, not in organized sports, riding on their little bicycles or just playing in their yard and I thought to myself, ‘There are all sorts of children that are free on Sundays or any other day of the week.’”
Rev. Canefield is a visionary—with a grant from Upper New York Conferences New Faith Communities Ministry Area, she started a New Faith Community called A Little Child Will Lead Us aimed to be a place for those kids that she saw in poor neighborhoods.
A Little Child Will Lead Us (ALCWLU) is free childcare housed at Watertown First United Methodist Church. It is offered on Wednesdays after school and on one Saturday a month. There are 26 children enrolled and a typical Wednesday has 20 children ranging in age from infant-12 years old. There is a diverse mix of children. About 50 percent of the children are white and about 50 percent are mixed race. Some of the children have special needs. Most of the children are raised by single moms.
Rev. Canfield started the program by bringing flyers to the local school superintendent and told her about the program open to all children, convincing her that it was not a religious program, but a program that will model the Golden Rule.
“She bought it,” Rev. Canfield exclaimed, “Her name was Patty LaBarre; she was like, ‘That’s all you are going to do? You are not going to teach catechism or songs?’ and I told her, no, this will be open to anyone regardless of background, race, or ethnicity. This will allow parents to work late or go to appointments or do something for themselves while the children will be mentored to love themselves and love others unconditionally.”
ALCWLU is a vibrant ministry.
There are five rooms devoted to the children: a craft room, a game room complete with a trampoline and basketball hoop, a nursery for toddlers and infants who may need a nap, a playroom for the younger kids, and a kitchen where the older kids share dinner together.
One of the ministries’ leaders, Jennifer Felton, (mom to two-year-old twins, both who are both in ALCWLU) feeds the smaller children in the small children’s playroom at a little table with tiny plastic chairs.
Excitedly, she said, “These kiddos just graduated from highchairs to this toddler table,” as the six kids ate their cut-up chicken nuggets and grapes.
Christina White is the Lead Child Coordinator for ALCWLU and is also a mom to two children in the program. With great enthusiasm, she teaches crafts. For example, one day, the older children made pirate patches and telescopes for them to later use in the outdoor fenced-in playground on the church’s premises…they were going to search for treasures that Christina hid.
ALCWLU is so beneficial to the children. Jennifer is extremely patient with the children. She has taught a nonverbal toddler with autism over 20 words in the past three months.
A lot of the children in the program have experienced trauma in their lives, such as death and domestic violence. Through ALCWLU, “they heal because they are listened to,” Rev. Canfield said.
Rev. Canfield explained some of the life lessons that are taught through plays that they produce together, such as The Giving Tree. She said, “We have a lot of fun doing kids’ plays. We just really love kids. I just think that too many children are structured all day to the point that they feel like they’re a failure because maybe they are not very good at school…our idea is to help children understand their identity as a child of God, that they are loved, and they are precious and wonderful!”
ALCWLU is just as beneficial to the parents as it is to the children.
Christina said, “A lot of times, Anne will invite us to the church for dinner and us moms can talk while our kids run around and play. Not a lot of the moms have support systems so it’s really nice that we have these dinners…Us moms decided together to have a messenger program…we share things like hand-me-down clothes or dentist referrals. I don’t think I would have this support if I didn’t start working here or send my kid here. It’s had a very good impact on my life.”
Rev. Canfield said, “This is the Church at its best.” And this program has brought more children into the church not just on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but also on Sundays. In fact, Rev. Canfield has baptized eight children in the past year and now has 10-14 children attending church every Sunday.