Youth build community through Sterling’s Pizza Church

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STERLING — Pizza Church, held Thursday nights at First Church, is more than just a hangout for tweens and teens. It’s become a safe space for young people in the area, and there’s a lot more meaning behind it than just eating slices of pie together.

“I’m proud that the group is extremely diverse and that we have a lot of kids on the LGBTQ spectrum,” said Zach Kerzee, First Church organizer and associate minister for youth and family ministry. “Church has never been a safe place for LGBTQ people, so I decided to start a group that I wish I had had available when I was younger.”

Kerzee launched Pizza Church last fall as part of the church’s programming for youth in grades 6-12. The inspiration and “concept of an open-mic youth group” came from his similar university ministry, The Oaks.

“We start with an open mic where children can express themselves artistically. Then we end the night with deep conversations about living a virtuous life,” he said.

Family, friends and community members are invited to a showcase scheduled for June 2 at 7 p.m. Proceeds from suggested donations will benefit The Trevor Project, an American non-profit organization founded in 1998 that focuses on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth.

The last day to register as a performer is May 26 and there will be a rehearsal at the church on May 30 from 5-6:30 p.m., which performers must attend to be part of the lineup. The event will feature Pizza Church attendees performing songs individually and together and a bake sale.

STERLING — Pizza Church attendees sign up to perform in the June 2 showcase.

“The showcase is basically a talent show where the kids will perform their favorite numbers they’ve performed this year,” Kerzee said. “The kids are super excited and it looks like Pizza Church has turned into a Disney Channel original movie from the early 2000s. We’re all stressed and excited.

More than 30 young people from Sterling and across the region typically attend the gatherings each week. One of the regulars is town resident Charly Heinrich, who will be 15 on the day of the showcase and has been frequenting Pizza Church since the very beginning.

“True community does not form out of nowhere. The community comes from a need, and there was absolutely a need for Pizza Church,” Charly said. “I think the young people of Sterling and its surrounding communities really needed Pizza Church, a place where all they need to be is to be fully themselves. There is no determining factor as to what a Pizza Church performer is.

The Wachusett Regional High School freshman said Pizza Church was a way for them to express themselves in a non-judgmental, safe and welcoming space.

“Sterling is a small town that sometimes tends to have even smaller ideas, and we’re shattering those expectations placed on us that try to limit what we ‘should’ be,” Charly said. “From LGBTQ+ identity to general eccentricity, Pizza Church doesn’t limit you because of your youthful, sometimes invalidated identity. In fact, the collective uniqueness of each participant is what makes Pizza Church a safe haven for us.

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