What?! Religious content in SN&R?

This newspaper’s president explains the launch of SacYouth.com

Since 2001, News & Review President Jeff vonKaenel has attended services at more than 60 local religious organizations and churches. He has also helped to organize regional interfaith events to mark the anniversary of September 11.

Since 2001, News & Review President Jeff vonKaenel has attended services at more than 60 local religious organizations and churches. He has also helped to organize regional interfaith events to mark the anniversary of September 11.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Jeff vonKaenel is president and co-owner, News & Review newspapers.

In this week’s SN&R you will find something different: new pages of youth activities. These listings—part of a project sponsored by the Sierra Health Foundation and SN&R—will be taken from our company’s new Web site of faith-based activities for Sacramento’s young people, SacYouth.com. I believe we are the first alternative newspaper in the country to create such a Web site and also the first to commit space each week to publishing a listing of faith-based activities for youths.

How did this come about?

On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, I pulled into the SN&R parking lot just as Judy Collins’ rendition of “Amazing Grace” came on the radio. The song brought tears to my eyes. But when it was over, I felt better and realized it was the song that had given me comfort and the strength to carry on through that very difficult day.

The experience helped something fall into place for me. It’s a belief that music and faith could help lead us away from despair and toward cooperation and peace. This is what eventually led SN&R to plan an interfaith night of music on the first anniversary of September 11.

In preparation for this evening, I attended religious services all over Sacramento to find faith-based music for our event. In fact, since 2001, I have attended hundreds of services at 60 local churches and religious organizations. I can’t exactly explain why I did this. Perhaps it was because I was a sociology major in college and have always been drawn to experiencing the worlds of people whose lives are different from my own. Or perhaps I felt compelled to find what all these services had in common and discover their unifying themes. In any case, along the way, I found wonderful music for our annual A Call for Unity event that’s held every September at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center.

It was while visiting these places that I noticed that most of them had great low- or no-cost community services. They offered drug counseling, marriage workshops, financial counseling, bereavement groups and youth activities. And although many of these activities are truly wonderful, few people know about them.

As I became aware of the tremendous need for youth programs, I began to wonder if there was a way to link up Sacramento’s 400,000 young people with the great youth programs being sponsored by these local faith-based organizations. Most of these programs would be happy to accept more young people, including youths from outside their congregations, but they have no way to get the word out.

One of our strengths at SN&R is the ability to collect information and disperse it to the community. Nearly one-quarter of all adults in the Sacramento region, including 170,000 parents with children living at home, read SN&R. Many more read our paper online. I thought that perhaps the paper could play a role in connecting these programs with Sacramento’s young people.

This idea became a reality through the generosity of Dorothy Meehan and Sierra Health Foundation. They gave us a grant to help with the cost of building the Web site and running a year’s worth of ads in SN&R. In addition, Dorothy introduced me to Area Congregations Together (ACT). As part of this grant, ACT will work with Sacramento’s faith-based organizations to offer leadership training to their youth leaders.

Over the last several months, I have worked very closely with SN&R’s interfaith ambassador, Alec Binyon. We hired him to run the SacYouth.com Web site and to collect the information that we’ll be publishing beginning in this week’s SN&R. Alec attends services at a different religious organization each week and has contacted nearly every congregation in Sacramento over the last few months.

If you go to SacYouth.com, you will see that there are more than 50 different faith organizations and more than 200 youth activities posted on the Web site. Now, you may be wondering why you should consider getting your child involved in a faith-based activity.

This is the very question that I had 11 years ago.

Although church was a big part of my life growing up in a small town in Ohio, I had not been to church since I was in the eighth grade. “Why should I go back?” I asked the Rev. Faith Whitmore of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. Faith looked at me for a second and then said, “Jeff, you have two children. They should hear a moral message from someone outside the family.”

As a young man, I had learned about the civil-rights movement in my church. Even though I hated dressing up for church, I liked seeing my life in the context of a bigger plan. After thinking about what Faith had said, I started taking my two young children to services at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Now there are many ways children can gain important life skills. Sports, school, music, summer jobs, community services and religious activities all can provide valuable life experiences. These activities get young people involved with adults outside of their family. These adults willingly volunteer their time to help young people. They provide extra support outside the family, and often can help a child get through a difficult time, and prevent a child from going down the wrong path.

Religious organizations, in particular, can teach young people about empathy. Empathy helps us understand that the universe does not begin and end with us. But what you do with your life and what I do with my life is important. It is important because we are all connected. So it’s important to live correctly. And by living correctly, we not only will make a better world, but also will be more content and more at peace with ourselves.

In fact, this simple message was repeated over and over at each Sacramento faith-based service I attended over the last four years.

But even more important than the message you hear is the fact that you see people living this message. It is one thing to say, “Do the right thing.” It is another thing to be in a building where hundreds of individuals are joining in that goal and volunteering to help people less fortunate than themselves.

While attending services all across Sacramento, I have seen the impact of faith on young people. One incident I’ll never forget was at Christian Life Family Worship, a primarily African-American church, when I saw how proud the congregation was of its youth gospel group. During one of the songs, the group passed the microphone to a young boy. He looked nervous at first, but he stepped up and sang a beautiful solo. The whole congregation cheered when he was done. I saw that young boy’s confidence grow right in front of my eyes.

Another time, at the large mega-church Capital Christian Center, I heard a young man talk to the congregation about how he was devastated by his parents’ divorce. His life was turned upside down. He got in fights at school; he took drugs and committed crimes. For him, the support that he received from the church helped turn his life around.

And at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, I saw kids coming back from working at the Loaves & Fishes homeless shelter with an enhanced sense of compassion. They also had gained a new sense that they could make a difference in the world.

We need to get our kids involved in experiences that will enable them to connect with the outside world. I like to think of SacYouth.com as the empathy coat store, with hundreds of beautiful coats all in different sizes, colors and shapes. One of those coats will fit your child. It is a cold world without a coat. For many of our kids, that additional love will be a life raft that will get them through the troubled waters of the teenage years.

I personally was very lucky. I not only had two loving parents; I also had a swim coach who taught me discipline. I had a minister who taught me about social justice. And I had a college professor who taught me that an individual could make history. I feel very fortunate that I had important adults in my life.

My hope is that some of what we do at SN&R—like launching SacYouth.com—will help pass some of that that good luck forward. In fact, this project is a way to thank Bill Zirzow, the Rev. Bertoni and Dick Flacks. They may not have realized it at the time, but I was listening.