Reaching for the STARS

When John Kline, lead pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, addresses potential volunteers for the church’s STARS program, he keeps it real.

“Don’t [volunteer] because you think you’ll feel good about yourself,” he says. “You won’t. You’ll go home tired, frustrated, even angry, and on a few days, perhaps joyful. Only volunteer if you want to serve Jesus by serving the least.”

The program Kline is referring to is the STARS Kids Academy, which stands for Serve, Teach, Advocate, Reach and Send. A Wednesday night outreach, STARS began in 2010 as an outgrowth of Zion’s first apartment outreach, and today serves roughly 200 kids weekly. The program invites children to gather for food and fellowship as they grow to know God and one another through songs, games and prayer. 

“It’s the training ground for our future,” says Kline, adding one of the program’s overarching goals is to improve race relations.

“The kids constantly injure one another with remarks about who has lighter versus darker skin,” he says. “We learn to love our brothers and sisters from different tribes because God made only one race—the human race.” 

According to Kline, the biggest challenges these children face are drugs, gangs, guns and physical fights, which are usually racially charged. “There’s no doubt that all of our kids are at risk.” 

Each summer the church raises money to send between 50–100 children to summer Bible camp. Zion Lutheran also provides fun activities such as renting out an aquatic center or movie theater for a day. Plus, the church hosts dances for high schoolers. 

“We try to bring kids together across the usual racial lines,” says Kline. “We do whatever we can think of to get kids out of the neighborhood, away from the familiar, and teach them how to act differently in different places.”

Christy Heitger-Ewing
Christy Heitger-Ewing

Christy Heitger-Ewing is a contributing writer for Outreach magazine. In addition, Christy pens the “Now & Then” column in Cabin Life magazine. She also writes regularly for Christian publications such as Encounter, Insight, and the Lookout. She is the author of Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat.