Blessing rural kids, butterflies

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Key points:

  • The Rev. Rob Spencer is a fourth-generation Methodist clergyman and the son of Methodist missionaries.
  • After many years of leading churches in north central Texas, he has founded a nonprofit called Cultiv8 Community.
  • One of its several missions is to get rural kids into nature more and have them plant milkweed and other native wildflowers that are host plants for butterflies.

Consider the lilies, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.

Don’t forget the milkweed, the Rev. Rob Spencer says in conversations across rural north Texas.

Spencer, a United Methodist elder, last year founded a nonprofit called Cultiv8 Community. Two of its goals are helping native plants rebound and addressing the reality that kids, especially those from low-income families, suffer from spending little time in nature.

This spring and summer, Spencer and his team welcomed daily busloads of children from in and around Paris, Texas, to the nearby Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake.

There they tromped around forests and fields with master naturalists and other volunteers. They learned that milkweed is the one plant that monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on, and the only plant monarch caterpillars eat.

The kids dug holes and planted and watered native wildflower seedlings, including milkweed. They scattered milkweed seeds, too.

Master naturalist Ronald Carson shares an insect discovery with a wary student from Justiss Elementary of Paris, Texas. The nonprofit Cultiv8 Community, founded by the Rev. Rob Spencer, hosted Justiss kids at Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake, on May 19. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.  

Master naturalist Ronald Carson shares an insect discovery with a wary student from Justiss Elementary of Paris, Texas. The nonprofit Cultiv8 Community, founded by the Rev. Rob Spencer, hosted Justiss kids at Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake, on May 19. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.

Simultaneously meeting kids’ need for time in nature and monarchs’ need for milkweed is a sweet spot for Spencer and his nonprofit.

“It’s always about habitat,” he said. “At Cultiv8, we work to restore all kinds of habitat, so that people and nature can flourish for generations.”

Spencer, 64, was pastor of First United Methodist Church in Paris from 2013 to 2022, and from the beginning he talked about taking ministry beyond the church building.

“When he came to the church he said, basically, ‘My office is outside the walls,’” said David Glass, a longtime First United Methodist of Paris member.

Spencer has for the past 15 months been outside the local church all together, having sought and received an extension appointment to go full time with his nonprofit.

Children attending a Cultiv8 Community camp on May 19 plant milkweed, a wildflower depended on by monarch butterflies. This spring and summer, the nonprofit has brought about 800 kids from the Paris, Texas, area to the nearby Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake for time in nature. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.  

Children attending a Cultiv8 Community camp on May 19 plant milkweed, a wildflower depended on by monarch butterflies. This spring and summer, the nonprofit has brought about 800 kids from the Paris, Texas, area to the nearby Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake for time in nature. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.

Cultiv8 Community is in its early days, but Spencer has long been noted by North Texas Conference colleagues for the heart and creativity he brings to serving the people and land of rural north central Texas.

“He’s an incredible leader,” said the Rev. Larry James, a United Methodist elder and CEO emeritus of the nonprofit CitySquare Dallas. “He’s always saying I’m his mentor, but that’s baloney. He’s my mentor. I try to dip into Rob’s world as often as I can because I see the impact he has.”

The Rev. Owen Ross, the North Texas Conference’s director of church development, said he also finds Spencer inspiring company.

“No matter where Rob has been serving, he has had a deep passion for those Christ called the ‘the least of these,’” Spencer said. “I like spending time with Rob because his passion to help the sufferers of society is contagious.”

The Rev. Rob Spencer chats with a young camper on May 19 at the Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake, near Paris, Texas. Spencer, a United Methodist elder, founded Cultiv8 Community, a nonprofit that gets local schoolchildren out into nature. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.  

The Rev. Rob Spencer chats with a young camper on May 19 at the Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake, near Paris, Texas. Spencer, a United Methodist elder, founded Cultiv8 Community, a nonprofit that gets local schoolchildren out into nature. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.

Spencer is a fourth-generation Methodist clergyman. His parents, Bob and Jane Spencer, were missionaries with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

The family moved to Brazil when Rob Spencer was 4. He grew up there through age 12, exposed to poverty in the neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and Recife where his parents planted churches.

Spencer recalls another formative experience.

“My third-grade teacher assigned me a monarch butterfly project,” he said. “It was primarily research. It’s the only (school) project I remember.”

The Spencer family moved back to Texas, where Rob formed a love for fishing and hunting that continues. The years clipped along, and he was a 30-year-old businessman when one day his father took him to a Denny’s restaurant in Garland, Texas, and asked if he had ever considered going into ministry.

“It felt like somebody hit me with a baseball bat,” Spencer said. “It was a call I’d been running from for years.”

He would attend seminary and became a United Methodist elder, moving from church to church in the North Texas Conference with wife Celeste and their son and daughter.

In 2013, Spencer got appointed to First United Methodist Church of Paris. He and Celeste accepted an offer to live out from town near the Red River, on a 300-acre farm owned by the family of the late Rev. Tom Graves of the North Texas Conference.

They were settled in time to observe the southward fall migration of monarch butterflies.

“It just reminded me of that project I’d done almost 50 years before,” Spencer said. “Then I did a little research and learned how much of the (monarch butterfly) habitat had been destroyed. There’s just a fraction of the number of monarchs now that there were decades ago. That’s when Celeste and I got interested in restoring habitat at the farm.”

The Rev. Rob Spencer and Celeste Spencer, his wife, talk with kids from Justiss Elementary of Paris, Texas, on May 19 at Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake. The kids dug holes and planted and watered native wildflower seedlings that are host plants for butterflies. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News. 

The Rev. Rob Spencer and Celeste Spencer, his wife, talk with kids from Justiss Elementary of Paris, Texas, on May 19 at Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake. The kids dug holes and planted and watered native wildflower seedlings that are host plants for butterflies. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.

Visiting their son at the University of Kansas, the Spencers would learn of that school’s Monarch Watch program. They became affiliates, creating a monarch butterfly way station at Graves Farm by planting milkweed seedlings provided by Monarch Watch.

Meanwhile, Spencer was leading First United Methodist of Paris to a more outward focus. That included recruiting some 50 members to be mentors to at-risk kids as part of the North Texas Conference’s One + One initiative.

Spencer signed up, too, drawing a second grader. The boy is now going into high school and Spencer remains his mentor.

In the mentoring program’s early days, Spencer had a turning-point conversation.

“We’d been in it a couple of months, and I had two of my mentors come to me and say, ‘Rob, we’ve got a lot of problems in this town. What are we going to do?’” Spencer recalled.

The pastor organized a meeting of community leaders and mentors. The latter shared what they’d learned about Paris’ social ills from spending time with at-risk kids.

“We filled up a white board,” Spencer said. “It was food insecurity, housing. Kids being tired in class because they didn’t have a good place to sleep at night.”

Spencer had met James of CitySquare Dallas, which takes a comprehensive approach to curbing poverty. He got James to Paris for more meetings, which led to community leaders undergoing poverty simulations, further sensitizing them to the challenges many people face daily.

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The upshot, in 2017, was the creation of a subsidiary: CitySquare Paris. It operates out of a former United Methodist church, providing clothing, meals, internet connection, a laundry room, a gym, GED classes, ESL classes and more. Spencer has been on the board since the beginning.

His leadership at First United Methodist of Paris remained fruitful and included overseeing a $2.5 million renovation of its historic sanctuary and campus. He’s prouder of another, a $1.2 million project that saw a third of the church’s parking lot turned into a city park. That outreach effort drew $600,000 in support from community partners.

At First Paris, Spencer preached prophetically about racism. He also helped organize a service of remembrance and apology for the 1920 lynching in Paris of African American brothers Herman and Irving Arthur.

A couple of years ago, Spencer had yet another pivotal encounter, this time with Jacki Lammert of the Texas Methodist Foundation. She asked if he’d thought about working full time on the community outreach that clearly meant so much to him.

He told her he planned to do that after retirement.

“She said, ‘No, I want you to think about what you could do right now,’” Spencer recalled. “When she said those words, it reminded me of when my Dad asked me if had considered going into ministry. It was the same kind of question. I thought, ‘I should give this a shot.’”

Last year, Spencer stepped down as pastor of First United Methodist of Paris and began full time with the nonprofit he envisioned and incorporated: Cultiv8 Community.

The “8” refers to the day after God’s week of creation and rest as described in Genesis.

Looking for allies

The Rev. Rob Spencer welcomes hearing from other United Methodists interested in addressing nature-deficit disorder in kids. His email address is [email protected].

“Going into the eighth day, everything was as God intended it to be,” Spencer said. “So part of our work is to try to create an eighth-day-of-creation type of place here.”

The nonprofit has a range of focus areas, including helping low-income folks own their own homes. Cultiv8 has been donated nine lots in Paris and with a $250,000 grant from the Philip and Sally Cecil Foundation has begun to rehab one house and prepare for construction of another.

Other goals include creating a network of what Spencer calls “change leaders with heart” in towns across the region. Habitat restoration is a focus area, as is providing respite retreats for teachers, clergy and others in helping professions.

Most conspicuously, Cultiv8 Community has so far brought some 800 children to the Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake. A $70,000 grant from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department covered the bulk of the costs.

Fourth graders from Justiss Elementary arrived early on May 19 and were kept busy outside until lunch. Ashlea Mattoon, camp director, had the kids come up two by two for a close look at a monarch larva chomping on a milkweed leaf.

“There’s our caterpillar just eating away,” Mattoon said.

“Is it real?” a boy asked.

“That’s a real caterpillar,” Mattoon assured.

As Cultiv8 Community camp director Ashlea Mattoon looks on, Allan Castillo (left) and Jacob Coronado examine a monarch butterfly caterpillar. The boys were part of a Paris, Texas, elementary school group that spent most of May 19 at the Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake, near Paris. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News. 

As Cultiv8 Community camp director Ashlea Mattoon looks on, Allan Castillo (left) and Jacob Coronado examine a monarch butterfly caterpillar. The boys were part of a Paris, Texas, elementary school group that spent most of May 19 at the Methodist Camp on Pat Mayse Lake, near Paris. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.

Camp director Ashlea Mattoon enjoys showing Jacob Lewis (left) and Kaden Langford a monarch butterfly larva chomping on milkweed. The boys spent May 19 at a day camp near Paris, Texas, operated by Cultiv8 Community. The Rev. Rob Spencer started that nonprofit, and its goals include getting kids out into nature. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News. 

Camp director Ashlea Mattoon enjoys showing Jacob Lewis (left) and Kaden Langford a monarch butterfly larva chomping on milkweed. The boys spent May 19 at a day camp near Paris, Texas, operated by Cultiv8 Community. The Rev. Rob Spencer started that nonprofit, and its goals include getting kids out into nature. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.

Spencer is a devotee of Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” It argues that kids’ spending so much time indoors, in front of computer, phone or TV screens, has worsened obesity, attention disorders and depression.

According to Spencer, most of the children Cultiv8 Community works with have never been to a camp and have had limited time in nature, despite living far from a big city.

The Rev. Nancy Russell has seen this as a Cultiv8 Community volunteer, leading elementary school-age kids on nature walks to Pat Mayse Lake.

“They always want to know if there are sharks in the lake,” she said, laughing.

Russell, pastor of Roxton United Methodist Church in Roxton, Texas, found Spencer to be a trusted advisor as she made a second career move into United Methodist ministry. She supports his decision to leave the local church for Cultiv8, which is a secular nonprofit, in order to work closely with public schools and raise funds broadly.

“The church strengthens us to go out into the mission field,” Russell said. “I see Cultiv8 as a good way to fulfill that mission to serve the world.”

Spencer remains very much in the denomination and will be a North Texas Conference delegate to the 2024 South Central Jurisdictional Conference. He notes that he’s had crucial help in his outreach work from the Texas Methodist Foundation, the North Texas Conference and even the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

An UMCOR grant helped pay for the removal of 150 trees felled by a tornado that blew through the Methodist Camp grounds in November.

“I’m proud every time I pass a Cross and Flame,” Spencer said.

Cultiv8 Community’s camp visits have stopped now that it’s late July and stiflingly hot in Texas. But kids will be arriving by the busload again in the fall — in time to see monarchs migrating south.

There will be more planting of milkweed seedlings, and more scattering of milkweed seeds.

“The thing that kids love to do more than anything is grab a handful of seeds and throw them,” Spencer said. “They would do that all day.”

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.



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