New City Neighbors—brings hope

August 17, 2015

Eric Schalk, class of 2002, is executive director of New City Neighbors, a nonprofit organization founded by Fourth Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Following is his story.

My life before coming to Christ was not all that different than life today. I was raised in a good home by parents who attended church regularly. From the time I was born, I attended church, went to Sunday school (not always willingly), and later went to youth group.

My mom battled brain cancer when I was a child, and while she survived the tumor, the consequences of the treatment slowly consumed her. I often wrestled with why she wasn't like other moms, and found myself turning to God regularly for comfort and peace. By the time I entered high school, I knew I believed in Jesus. I was growing in my faith and would often visit the church throughout the week to hang out with my youth leader and pastor. During my junior year of high school, I joined the youth group leadership team and started to thrive in a ministry setting. At the end of the school year, I had a friend attempt suicide because of some hardships in his life. His attempt at suicide made me realize how much Christ had been at work in me, so I decided to publicly profess my faith. The only real change was that now other people knew for certain about me what I already did.

I used to wrestle with the notion that I didn’t have a great “conversion story.” I’d hear testimonies of people who endured crazy lives coming to Christ, and I was a bit envious that I didn’t have a great testimony. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to appreciate that my story wasn’t crazy. I grew up in the church, and the church helped me grow, thus fulfilling its baptismal vows. My lack of a crazy story is just as much a testimony to God’s grace and His work in His church.

After high school I attended Grand Rapids Community College to study culinary arts. For most of my life I wanted to be a baker or chef, open a restaurant, and have fun with food. Around the same time I was starting my freshman year of college, my home church was in need of a youth leader. Because of my leadership experience in the group, the church asked me to help out with coordinating programming while they searched for a full-time youth pastor. I needed a job and loved youth ministry, so I came on board.
Over the next five months, God began to get my attention. For a number of reasons, I found myself not enjoying culinary arts. I could have put up with the program and worked toward a degree, but I started to realize God was calling me into youth ministry. I loved working with the students and volunteers. I loved teaching the Bible and planning trips. God was calling me, and I was slowly realizing it more each day.

I dropped out of culinary arts in the spring of 1998 and began picking up some part-time work at my father’s woodworking shop. I kept working part time at Fourth Reformed Church as well and tried to figure out my next steps. A good friend of mine, Jack, a Kuyper grad, encouraged me to check it out. I’d never heard of the place before, despite living in Grand Rapids my entire life. Jack took me to Kuyper for a visit one day, and I wondered what I had wandered into. I’ll never forget the sight of no less than 10 people sitting on the sidewalk strumming guitars. Despite the strange guitar session, I had a great time meeting the staff, learning about the youth ministry program, and really felt at home. That summer I enrolled at Kuyper and never looked back.

I chose Kuyper because I believed they had one of the best youth ministry programs in Grand Rapids. That, coupled with the affordability of the education, made my decision a no-brainer. I joined the college community in the fall of 1998 excited about the education I would receive. I loved almost every class I took through my four years of college. Since I was currently working at a church, I could apply my learning to my life experience, which helped shape me in huge ways.

What I found at Kuyper was not just an incredible education, but also a community that really loved and supported me. I have friends from that first year of college that I still connect with today and have been very influential in my life and calling.

It’s funny to look back at my time at Kuyper. Almost every professor I had has since retired, though to some degree their spirits live on. The classes I took were challenging, but the professors were always accessible to answer questions. A few of my classmates and I became close with Dr. Felch. We would go to his house to watch movies, or even hit up a new release at the theater. On the last day of class our junior year, we went to his office with sparkling grape juice and toasted another great year of learning. To me, this was one of the benefits of attending a smaller college. I got to know my professors and learn from them even outside the classroom.

Kuyper has had a significant impact on me, and continues to even now. I really believe that it helped prepare me for a long career in youth ministry, and without the training I received, I’m not sure where I’d be. In recent years I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of interns and college students from Kuyper who have become significant volunteers for the ministries I help lead. On top of that, the social work program has been partnering with our Urban Farm for education and research, which has really blessed our ministry and students.

In a classic Kuyper College kind of way, I met my wife, Julie, née Wiersma, during my sophomore year. We both majored in youth ministry and have now served together for over 15 years. We have three children: Abbie (11), Josh (9) and Kate (5). All three of them participate in the ministries we serve.

I’m currently running New City Neighbors, a nonprofit birthed by Fourth Reformed Church. I served Fourth for 10 years as their youth director, and over those years the church’s ministries began to connect with at-risk children from the community. As the ministries grew, we decided to launch New City Neighbors to increase our capacity for ministry.

New City Neighbors runs three summer programs. Breaktime is a seven-week-long program for students in second-fifth grades. Students come to Breaktime every day during the week from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. for Bible study, music, art, educational activities, life skills, reading tutoring, lunch and fun. We also have the Breaktime Bakery, a nearly eight-week program that works with middle school students. These students run a fully functioning licensed bakery throughout the summer, learning valuable life and job skills. Each day the students arrive at 9:00 a.m. and work hard to make bread, bars, cookies, cheesecakes and pastries from scratch, which they then sell from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. at Fourth Reformed Church. The money the students make is used to take them on a four-day adventure somewhere outside of Michigan. The Bakery helps students see they have gifts and abilities they can use to be successful and opens them up to great possibilities in life.

Finally, we have the New City Urban Farm, which runs all summer and is staffed by 10 high school students who do everything from planting the crop, to marketing the produce, to selling it at the farm stand. We use the farm to help prepare high school students for college and careers. Not only do students learn about work, they also learn where their food comes from and what it means to eat healthy.

We are currently in the process of taking Breaktime, the Bakery and the Urban Farm from seasonal to year-round programs—working to lead students through a comprehensive discipleship program that will deepen their faith and prepare them for life.

Ministry hasn’t always been sunshine and roses. We work with many students who have significant challenges. Many of our students struggle with low self-worth, feeling unloved, and suffer anxiety over what may happen to them each day. Their struggles become our burden to carry, which can make some days incredibly hard.

While there are many challenges, there are also many joys. We see kids light up as they come to know salvation through Jesus. We see kids grow in love and trust as they build relationships with volunteers who invest in their lives. We see kids go from hopeless to hopeful as they discover their worth and see that there is a future for them. A few years ago we worked with a young lady who had dropped out of high school. She had little direction in life, but she agreed to work on our farm for a summer. Through the training and mentoring she received, she committed to getting her GED, has become a manager on our farm, and now has a great job with the YMCA Veggie Van. And just this past week, another student who has been very difficult to work with over the years asked to be baptized because his faith in Jesus is blossoming.

God is doing some amazing work in the hearts and lives of kids, and I am thrilled to be a part of it. As for what the future holds, only God knows.