How a simple invitation led to an ‘amazing’ ministry for local youth

One Sunday evening a few summers back, the church’s youth director spotted a group of teenagers on the playground, looking a little bored.

A young man in the group held a basketball under his arm. There was no place to shoot hoops. So began a God moment that still reverberates.

The teens accepted Brian Edwards’ invitation to play in the church gym at Muir’s Chapel UMC. They came back the next week. Before long, folks in the Greensboro congregation heard about the weekly games and asked their guests to stay for dinner. Bring your siblings, too.

“It was one of those God possibilities that nobody planned or strategized,” said Brian, the former youth coordinator. “It became, almost accidentally, the best thing the church had going.”

Certainly the noisiest, too. Spark After Dark now attracts dozens of youth for open gym time, dinner and fellowship on Sunday nights. Many come from tough circumstances. They walk to the church from nearby apartments that serve lower- and middle-income families.

‘Always have a place’

At the center of the effort is Rev. Courtney Sanford, known for her big smile and creativity with slime (a favorite activity during fellowship time). Courtney began in 2022 as director of children’s ministries.

A team of adult mentors keeps watch over the scene. Some may call it holy chaos. It’s also a diverse representation of the body of Christ.

Courtney wants young people to know “they’re deeply loved by God and by a group of people who want to see them be successful. And they always have a place at Muir’s Chapel.”

One in four households in Greensboro are defined as extremely rent-burdened, meaning more than 50 percent of their monthly income goes toward rent, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility.

Almost two-thirds of students in Guilford County schools live below the poverty line, a 2023-24 school district report shows.

When the meal is served at 5:30 p.m., many of the kids at Spark After Dark will say they have not eaten yet that day. They are excited to take home leftovers.

With support from the Foundation’s Reynolds Ministry Fund, the initiative has expanded its reach by adding a summer camp and food security program. It is among the stories featured in the 2023 Unity + Purpose annual report.

A place of community

Spark After Dark addresses a vital need, particularly for children who drifted during the pandemic. Arthur Durham shows up every Sunday with his 7-year-old son, Julius.

“We live in an age where our kids are consumed by videos, tablets, phones,” Arthur said. “We want them to get back to playing and learning how to get along – and doing these things in a place of community.”

One night, the drama teacher from the nearby elementary school led the children in producing a movie. They staged a premiere complete with a red carpet and paparazzi.

“Watching the children beam as the credits rolled has been one of my highlights in ministry so far,” Courtney said.

Three years ago, a church opened its door to a group of strangers. The Holy Spirit did the rest.

“One simple invitation,” Brian said, “turned into an amazing opportunity for ministry.”

This article by Matt Garfield, Director of Communications, was featured in the Foundation’s Unity + Purpose Annual Report.

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