In Hiawassee, this youth worker literally speaks across generations

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Students at Macedonia Baptist Church in Hiawassee look to Janice Rogers for her response on the “Laurel-or-Yanny” debate Wednesday, May 16. Looking on in back is Bradley Thomas, associate pastor of youth. (For the record, Rogers heard “Laurel.” SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

HIAWASSEE — It’s impossible to talk about the youth ministry of Macedonia Baptist Church without mentioning Janice Rogers.

Born five days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Rogers began volunteering with the student ministry the same year JFK was assassinated. Today, at 76 years old, she brings perspectives and wisdom that only comes with 55 years of serving, caring, and loving on the church’s youth.

Rogers credits the leadership of ministers such as current Associate Pastor of Youth Bradley Thomas in the successful Macedonia student ministry. MACEDONIA/Special

She’s known as a volunteer, but at times became the de facto youth director when Macedonia didn’t have a staff person in the position. Rogers has coordinated trips out of town. She led campouts in the mountains, sleeping overnight under a shelter (no tent) alongside students. She’s taught Bible studies. She stayed up all night for lock-ins into her fifties.

On a recent Wednesday night, “Ms. Janice” walked into the church’s fellowship hall where Associate and Youth Pastor Bradley Thomas prepared to speak with students. This is the day social media obsessed over the Laurel-Yanny debate. And so, Ms. Janice would soon be drawn into the discussion.

Some students were convinced they heard one thing. Others just as sure they heard something else. Rogers, for the record, heard “Laurel.”

In the days that followed, the explanation basically revealed that both answers were right. The recording’s quality and how the individual’s brain heard the sound waves determined which word was heard.

So, no matter how concrete-solid one felt in his or her opinion, they had to consider the other person’s point of view.

The main thing to work with youth

While many things have changed over the last five decades in youth ministry. Rogers claims there are basics that stand the test of time.

“You have to love them; that’s the main thing,” she says. “You need to be sincere. Also, just be willing to be with them.”

Rogers then points out a truth even more important today. Students can sense their value from others based on who their parents are or where they live, not to mention their number of social media “friends” or Likes.

“Treat them all the same,” she says. “That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Rogers’ testimony may sound familiar to many students. She made a statement of faith as a child in Clarksville, GA. But later on in high school felt she’d wavered.

“I rededicated my life as a high school senior to the Lord,” she says, “because I didn’t feel I was where He wanted me to be.”

Not long after high school she met and married her husband, Harold, a deacon at Macedonia Baptist Church. They decided to get involved in the church’s youth ministry.

So, she did.

Memories

On that Wednesday at Macedonia, someone puts a photo album in front of Rogers. Pointing to a picture of a group of girls at Camp Pinnacle, they can’t remember the name of the one in the front row.

“Her name was Becky,” Rogers says with no hesitation. “She had two daughters and died when she was 36. I think both children were still in elementary school. Her daughters came through the church here.”

Janice Rogers smiles over memories built from her 55 years of serving in the student ministry of Macedonia Baptist Church in Hiawassee. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

Other photos follow.

“This young man … I kept him when he was little.”

“There’s a picture of Doug Couch. This was at SuperWow.”

“At this lock-in, the youth were given paper. They wrote their sins, then threw the paper in the fire.”

She notes former pastors, particularly Harold Ledford. For 30 years Ledford served as pastor of the church and became an interwoven part of the Hiawassee community as a preacher and school bus driver. On the day of his funeral, businesses and schools closed for people to attend. Rogers gave Ledford and his wife the land on which they built their home.

Another picture features a handsome young man with an athletic build, confidence radiating through the 42-year-old photo. It’s Ray Goff, then Georgia’s star quarterback, on the night in April 1976 when he spoke to the youth on behalf of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Rogers says.

Youth and children surround Goff on the church’s front steps. A pretty, blonde eight-year-old girl sits in front of Goff. It’s Pam Floyd, who met her husband in the youth group at Macedonia. Their son, Kendall, is finishing up his last year in the student ministry upon graduating last Friday from Towns County High.

Yes, there have been second- and even third-generation members in the student ministry during Ms, Janice’s time.

The perspective time brings

Be around a setting – or in this case, a ministry – long enough and you pick up on things. You see patterns both good and bad and can predict the likely result.

In addition to volunteering and leading at Macedonia, Rogers worked in the Towns County School’s cafeteria for 24 years. Her time predated its being split into elementary, middle, and high schools, so she saw numerous children daily. Over the years, she noticed a difference in students. Sometimes, it can be more difficult to build a connection.

Loving students isn’t the issue. She agrees that getting students to believe you love them has become the challenge.

Janice Rogers holds a photo from the April 1976 evening when Ray Goff, UGA’s star quarterback, came to Macedonia to talk with the youth group. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

“Many of them haven’t been to church and live a different lifestyle. They come from broken homes. Some live with their boyfriend or girlfriend and have their own children.

“You have to pay attention to them. Listen to them. Let them know you love them.”

She says she can identify which ones are headed down rough roads, depending on who they hang out with, how they respond to authority, and if they show respect to others. But for her those aren’t signs to avoid, but to encounter.

“You see one person who needs a little encouragement or loving. That’s what I try here. Look at the ones who need it. You have to pay attention to them. Prove that you love them.”

“You have to pay attention to them. Listen to them. Let them know you love them.”

While she sees an overall lessening of respect toward parents and authority figures among youth today, the current students at Macedonia remind her of a different era.

“They’re extraordinary and a great bunch of students,” she beams. “They listen to you and respect you. Our parents have done a great job with them.” She also credits Thomas’ leadership as well as that of Ed Jump, currently serving the church as transitional pastor.

Seeing differently, but in the same world

An avid UGA fan, Ms. Janice was greeted with a surprise party and cake of her favorite team for her birthday last December. BRADLEY THOMAS/Special

Rogers also gives credit to the students for how they’ve impacted her. It does her good, she says, that what she sees runs counter to headlines indicating a coarse youth culture.

In one bit of evidence, she points to a hiking trip where the group had to cross a stream. Older youth volunteered to carry younger ones over on their backs. Similar stories from the years dot her memory.

“I’ve gained knowledge from working with youth. I have trust in them,” she testifies. “When I’m around them I like to join in and have fun with them.”

Students can gain a lot from working with senior adults and vice versa, Rogers says. “They’re missing a blessing. They would see and understand these young people. They could learn something from them.”

The world can seem different to people. One may find it unfamiliar, filled with danger, intrusive technology, and others making decisions that lack experience and wisdom. Another group sees it as one of possibility. They possess a positive expectation that comes with being young. This group sees a world where the gospel can be shared more freely than at any time in human history.

Just as a viral debate recently revealed, perhaps they’re both right. And, they can learn from each other.


Note: an earlier version of this story said Rogers began volunteering the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that event occurred in 1962.

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