Erica Lara’s passion for ministry to young people has not diminished since her time as a Youth and Family Studies major at Nyack College. The 2004 alumna was on the school’s Watchman Teams that would leave the Rockland County campus and travel into the five boroughs of New York City on mission to reach out to youth in urban neighborhoods.
She recalls, “We would go out every Friday night to a specific area in the South Bronx that we came across through prayer walking. We felt like God led us there and we just kept going and hanging out with the kids—rain, shine, winter, spring, whenever. We’d bring out gear, equipment, balls and games for them to play, which was a way to build relationships with them.”
Today Erica is the Area Director of Young Life Crown Heights, a community outreach in Brooklyn that creates a safe and engaging space for a population of mostly African American and Hispanic youth. Under her leadership, Young Life Crown Heights has successfully achieved its goals in the last several years by seeing an increase in the number of young people who participate. Funds invested by faithful donors are used to rent gym space for clubs, provide refreshments at events, camperships and training materials for leaders.
Then COVID-19 struck. Since last March, limitations on gatherings because of the pandemic has made in-person group activities difficult, but not impossible.
Reflecting on the past year, Erica says, “This has been a challenge for sure throughout the pandemic. Our team of caring adults have come together to create innovative ways to connect with our teens during this time. Young Life is all about incarnational ministry and we remain committed to be in the lives of our students. This looks like phone calls, text messages, virtual hangouts, in-person drop offs for our teens, and programs that have been happening virtually for a year now.”
Social distancing is not the only struggle the young people have endured.
“Many of our teens have experienced loss in their families and close friends, especially in the beginning of the pandemic when New York City shut down,” Erica explains. “We felt like we were hearing about someone who was sick or about someone’s passing on a regular basis. We did our best to stay connected with our students to make sure they experienced the love and comfort of Jesus through our check-ins with them, even if they weren’t able to happen in person.”
Technology has become a lifeline in these unprecedented times.
“We have been using Zoom for all of our virtual programs with our students,” Erica shares. “We were even able to start our middle school ministry, WyldLife, in the midst of this pandemic virtually by partnering with a local middle school in Crown Heights. The lack of access to technology and lack of familiarity with technology was extremely hard in the beginning, but it became more and more normal.”
So what kind of socially distanced engagements can Erica and her team provide for the young people who she says are “experiencing relationship starvation?”
For their middle and high school youth they have organized online games (Jeopardy, Uno or Kahoot), outdoor games like kickball, meet-ups for outdoor dining and a virtual Bible study called The Exchange. Discussions on mental health during this time of social deprivation has also taken place virtually on their Red Table Talk events.
A memory Erica shares is powerful proof of the significant role that Nyack College played in her development as a youth leader.
“During a work rotation at a high school in the South Bronx, there was a particular student who kept staring at me. Eventually he asked, ‘Are you from Nyack College?’ And I said, ‘Yes, how do you know Nyack?’ He said, ‘You used to come to my block every Friday night, remember? I remember your face. Erica, right?’ I was blown away! I had met this young man more than 10 years prior to that chance encounter. For him to recognize my face, remember my name and things we talked about with the kids, I was just blown away! The kind of time and investment we gave, we didn’t always see the fruit of it, and as someone who really gave all of herself into that ministry—to be able to hear that it’s still something he remembers and holds onto to this day was something… that was so special.”
Though Erica pours generously into the lives of young people in Crown Heights, nothing competes with her first ministry, which is her family. Husband Rafael (fondly known as “Macho”), also a Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary alumnus, is an information technology manager at a Crown Heights middle school and serves on the Young Life board. With their children, Eliana and Elias, the couple landed in this “mission field” answering the call to “take the gospel to the whole world.” For Erica, that world is Young Life Crown Heights.