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For Cori Pasquale, minister of children and families at First Church of Christ of Old Saybrook (Congregational), the children’s classroom at the church is her happy place. She loves working with children, and particularly with teens. (Photo by Becky Coffey/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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In her 20s, Cori Pasquale had a crisis of faith. It was surprising since she and her family were strongly connected to the faith community of First Church of Christ of Old Saybrook (Congregational) when she was young, but suddenly in her late 20s, she found herself adrift with a new baby and in the midst of a divorce. She needed help and support.
It was on a Sunday morning she found herself drawn to return to the New Jersey church where she had been married. Sitting down in the last pew, with her new baby in her arms, she just started crying. And that was when she knew she had returned home.
“Growing up in a faith community helped me to know it would be a safe place,” said Cori.
Cori decided she would return with her child to Old Saybrook, the town where she’d grown up and felt nurtured. Her parents soon joined her, moving from their home in Massachusetts back to Old Saybrook, too.
It wasn’t long before Cori found herself pulled back into First Church’s faith community. When her parents Carol and Bo Henderson started the Heat and Eat Program under the Shoreline Soup Kitchen & Pantries, Cori volunteered to help. On Thanksgiving mornings, she, her daughter, and her parents would all package up items for the Heat and Eat program.
“Mostly it was my father who instilled in me to spend your life helping the marginalized, the oppressed, and those less fortunate than you,” Cori says.
And as her daughter grew, she became more involved with the church’s religious education programs. In her volunteer work with teens, she knew she had found her niche. This in turn led her back to her faith—and finally, to professional ministry.
In 2012, Cori completed a master’s degree in art and religion at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As she was putting together her résumé and calling job references like her supervisors at First Church in advance, it happened. A retirement had led to an opening at First Church, and the church leadership called her back to Old Saybrook as First Church’s minister of children and families, a post she’s now held for six years.
In this role, she guides three youth groups: 4th- and 5th-graders on Wednesdays, 6th- and 7th-graders early on Sunday evening, and 8th- to 12th-grade students later on Sunday.
During the academic year, she leads 4th- and 5th-graders in a Wednesday after-school program focused on community service.
“The goal is for them to gain a better understanding about the world as a whole, that people live with water shortages, face environmental issues,” she says.
It’s all about gaining greater awareness of the world beyond the borders of the town in which they live.
For teens, Cori organizes and leads youth service trips to cities, rural areas, and, every few years, to the Navajo Nation in Arizona through an organization called Youthworks.
The service trips bring together young people from all over the country to work together on service projects while teaching them about the communities in which they serve.
Some of these trips—especially the ones to Arizona—can be expensive. So throughout the year, Cori works with the teen group as it plans and completes fundraising activities to help offset the costs of student travel. One annual fundraising event is the a capella group sing-off, which First Church hosts and for which students sell tickets.
“My goal is to empower children and teens and teach them how to advocate and help speak for those who don’t have a voice. By exposing our youth to these things [through service projects and discussion], they can find one area of interest and compassion for which they want to advocate,” she says.
Earlier this month, she led a one-week all-day camp at the church for 4th- to 8th-graders called Be the Change. Guided by adult teachers, the campers volunteered at the Estuary Senior Center, learned about non-profit organizations and the work they do. About 20 campers participated.
Asked if there was a moment when she truly knew that her work with youth through the church was what she was called to do, she shares a memory.
“I remember a mission trip to West Virginia. There were 70 kids together in one room with games, balls in the air—it was loud chaos. I thought, ‘This is really beautiful,’ and I knew I was contented, I was where I was supposed to be,” Cori recalls. “Life is messy. Kids are messy. And it’s in the chaos where I find God.
“I’ve always been called to work with teens—I get to have these cool conversations. I’ve learned so much from them,” Cori says.
One conversation she particularly recalls was perhaps more momentous than many, though she did not know it at the time. It was from a time when she served as a youth minister at a church in Colorado. A young man from the church where she worked called her one night.
“We talked for an hour, not about anything major. But then he told me several months later that I had saved his life, because he had been thinking of suicide,” Cori says.
The message? You never know where your efforts will bear fruit. Cori intends to continue to listen, care, and be compassionate to others.
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