Sunday, February 7, 2010

Boys n the Hood: Random Memories from our Season in Urban Youth Ministry

On Tuesday, I am planning to tell the story of ‘the rib incident’ as my culminating illustration in a talk on the church in Antioch (Acts 11&13 – manuscript and MP3 should show up by midweek). ‘The rib incident’ is a piece of Gibson lore from our season in urban youth ministry at Refreshing Springs Church, on the edge of Buffalo’s east side. As I wrote up the story and waded through some pictures for the ppt I got sentimental and decided to share a series of random memories about the hugely influential years we spent leading a ghetto youth ministry.[1]

-First, some background. This is where I grew up:

-I was raised as a nice little pluralist and taught that all people were fundamentally the same and racism was bad. This was mostly a lie. (Except the ‘racism is bad’ part…racism is, in fact, bad. It is just far more pervasive than I ever dreamed, especially in my heart.) For someone raised like that, racism get worse before it gets better. I was raised to expect that the only difference between the black community and the white community was something as arbitrary as skin color and that if everyone would just wake up and get modern, ethnic tension would simply evaporate. Imagine my surprise that urban black culture was, on the whole, substantially different than my culture in ways I liked and in ways that I didn’t like. Imagine my surprise that interacting with black urban Christians revealed sin and brokenness in me that I had never seen hanging out with white rural kids and Geneseo college students. Imagine my surprise that I had something unique to offer in a predominately black church because of my cultural background. The prescription for racism and prejudice is not pretending differences do not broadly exist or to reject your culture as of no real value…it is to be quick to repent of self righteousness, quick to ‘consider others as better than yourself,’ and slow to judge intentions behind actions you do not understand.[2]

-After Calvin and Darleen (the youth leaders when we got there) moved on, the elders put us in charge of the youth ministry. There was an obvious co-leader for the women. Tanya, an electrical engineer[3], who was among one of the most faithful, kingdom possessed Christians we have met to this day.

(Amanda and Tanya 'singin the blues')

For me, there was not an obvious choice. I told the elders that I would do it, but my co-leader had to be black. The elders told me ‘We don’t usually consider that sort of thing, but in this case, we agree.’ So I got Phil. Whenever Phil is mentioned in our house, both Amanda and I just pause and smile. Phil had only recently started coming to the church and, may have only been a Christian on the order of weeks or months. But that was not the remarkable thing about Phil being assigned as my black co-leader. The remarkable thing was that he was really angry at African Americans. His father moved to Buffalo from Africa when he was young to get a PhD. It was the 70’s and Phil’s father decided that he wanted to live in solidarity with his black brothers, and moved to the ghetto. And Phil proceeded to get the crap kicked out of him every day for months, until his family moved to Hamburg (one of the whitest suburbs in the region) and Phil lived the rest of his school years and young adulthood as the only black person he associated with outside his family. Phil was whiter than I was.

He once told us a story about going to a wedding at one of the urban mega churches and said, “I walked in and looked around, and the only white person was the guy running the video camera, so, of course, I felt totally uncomfortable.”[4] It is hard to articulate the amount of affection that Amanda and I developed for Phil and Tanya. Phil played cello, watched French films and refused to own living room furniture in an act of intentional simplicity. When we joined him for a meal we would eat it on a blanket, like an indoor picnic. He told us once that if we wanted him to feel loved, we would stop by without calling first. This grated so deeply at my upbringing that I almost could not do it. But before long, it started to be fun. ‘Let’s drop in on Phil’ one of us would always say when we were in his part of town and he never failed to greet us as if he had been expecting the visit and looking forward to it for days.[5]

-Our youth ministry philosophy[6] was to build the events around a quality, pedagogically useful, fun activity and a quality, accessible, interactive Bible study. For the ‘game’ portion of the evenings I quickly tired of the standard youth mixer options. So I acquired a couple of books on team building exercises used by corporate trainers. The Bible studies were pretty good…but the games were EPIC (if I say so myself).

(yes, those are mousetraps on the floor)

-One night we got a new student. His reputation preceded him. He was a handful. He came in late and a complicated activity was already under way and several students were waiting their turn. He watched for a while and then said…’I want to go next.’ Maintaining my commitment to the rule of natural law I said, ‘You will have to wait your turn. There are at least three groups ahead of you.’ He looked straight through me. His eyes got wild. And he said, ‘You are just making me wait because I am black.’ I panicked. Was he right? I had been raised to believe that the race card was the trumpest of all trump cards. But then I looked back at him as seriously as I could and said, ‘Yes. Yes, it IS because you are black.’ And then I kind of paused and looked around and said, ‘Hold on, so is EVERYONE ELSE.’ He tensed, as if to strike, and then started to giggle and said, ‘Hey, that’s cool, I can wait.’ I never had a problem with him again. Once, when I asked him to help set up some chairs or something, he smirked playfully and said ‘It’s cause I’m black isn’t it’ and then did it.[7]
-Many of our favorite memories of Buffalo include ‘The Pearl Street.’ We would usually drop the last kid off by 10 and roll into our street parking by 10:30. We’d go up to our apartment, drop off our stuff, and then cross the street to Gabriel’s Gate. Gabriel’s was one of like 14 bars on our street, but for character, we have yet to see it’s equal. Besides the bronze angel with actual flaming torches (described in this poem) standing watch over the medieval bronze entrance and the full sized carousel horses adorning the interior, there were at least 5 wood burning fire places inside. Every Friday night, we would get a table by one of the fire places and Amanda would order ‘the Pearl Street’[8] and we would try to ‘one-up’ each other with ‘you will not believe what happened tonight’ stories (since the guys and girls met separately). I think there is a correlation between how hard kingdom work is and how sweet it seems in retrospect.[9]

-I can’t really write about Refreshing Springs without writing about Emory. He was the pastor. I am not sure I have met more humility and grace in a senior pastor. Most of what I believe about what the Bible teaches about ecclesiology I learned from him. He truly believed that the church had to be led by a group of interdependent leaders that shared authority or responsibility. He was a ‘paid, preaching elder’ but he did not run the church…even though he founded it. Emory was a fine preacher who resided in theologically deep waters and, I suspect, I picked up a fair bit insight[10] from him. But we learned far more, by watching him. That is at least one of the differences between a preacher and a pastor.

-You are not supposed to have favorite students. But I had a protégé.
I wrote him for a couple of years after we left but have no idea what happened to him. I still think about him often. His mom was devastated to see us leave and he was the kind of kid that wasn’t afraid to tell you what you meant to him. In the end, we actually asked, do we give the rest of our 20’s to Buffalo for one kid? But nothing has been as hard on our marriage as that youth ministry.[11] So, we took the job in California. We are not optimistic about where many of those kids ended up. We just hope we offered them something of value…something that changed their lives for the better and made Jesus a little more real…because that was our experience of them.

This post was written while listening to Satellite[12] by POD
[1] I am sure that several times in the course of this post I will unwittingly write something ignorant, racist, unenlightened, offensive or all of the above. Ethnocentrism, racism, self righteousness, tribalism and pride are so deeply rooted in the human heart that I am pretty sure I am unable to talk about cross-cultural events and ideas without lapsing into crass sin. But, there is so much beauty and redemption and joy in these stories for me that I consider that a cost of humanness. Most of us are all far too afraid of being labeled a racist to even broach these issues with any honesty. So let me preempt that fear. My heart bears the dark disease of self righteousness. I am probably a racist by most useful definitions. But not voluntarily, and these stories are part of the incomplete narrative of repentance and healing of my cultural self righteousness and imperialism. Jesus heals brokenness that I didn’t even know I had.
[2] Prejudice is a different story. Prejudice is simply taking a tool as useful as correlation and applying it to people. I am a scientist. Correlation is one of my most useful tools. If one functional variable is related to another, I can use the one to predict the other. But this breaks down when it comes to people. There are broad cultural trends. To suggest otherwise would be empirically absurd. To predict the behavior of an individual based on trends developed from their cultural or ethic associations is expedient (which is why it is so prevalent)…but it is also patently unfair. People are not like rocks. We can correlate them, but we must not because they are each so unique and valuable. I think this is at the heart of the famous ‘do not judge’ passages of the Bible. Jesus is not saying that we can not know right and wrong. He is saying that human motivation is highly complex and textured and cannot be deduced from a few external variables.
[3] When I talked to the boys about what they wanted to be when they grew up I was told that a young black man had three options: rapper, basketball player, or crack dealer. But a couple of the better students would replace ‘crack dealer’ with ‘or an electrical engineer like Tanya.’ What I did for a living was not inspiring to them, presumably because I was white and expected to have some stuffy job. But Tanya drove a nice car and had a nice apartment on the East side. Whatever it was exactly that she did, maybe they could too.
[4] Amanda had a similar experience moving to Davis. Between Refreshing springs and her nursing degree at ECC’s city campus, she was unaccustomed to dealing with white people (who, if you are out of practice, can be really complicated to deal with). Davis was culture shock for her.
[5] I am going to arbitrarily bring the Phil stories to an end here. They are endless. He told us that one day, he would just disappear. A few years after we left, friends dropped by to say hi and his apartment was empty. The furniture that friends had snuck into his house at one point was at the side of the road with a free sign. We could not be more privileged to know some of the people God has allowed us to co-labor with for a season.
[6] And I use this word in the loosest possible sense. I had read a couple books and taken no classes on youth ministry. We were entirely unequipped.
[7] I always feel uncomfortable telling this story. I am not entirely satisfied with my response. I am not trying to claim it as clever or wise. It is probably offensive on some level. But it is the moment that I love. In a few seconds, I watched this young man transform from combatant to friend. To this day, I am not sure why but I suspect I observed something supernatural.
[8] A chicken finger and Swiss sandwich. Years later, we returned and were devastated to find it no longer on the menu…but the waitress managed to work something out.
[9] As long as you love the people you are doing it with. My brother once made the distinction between ‘sweet hard’ and ‘hard hard.’ I think ‘sweet hard’ is when something is hard but you love the people you are doing it, you are under caring and humble leadership, and you fundamentally believe that it is something Jesus wants done. Hard-hard lacks one of those qualities.
[10] Not to mention homiletics tips.
[11] I would start dreading the Thursday phone calls on Tuesday. It was this ministry that convinced us that we were not wired for full time ministry, particularly cross-cultural ministry. In retrospect, if I had simply had someone who would make the phone calls and drive some of the kids, we could have done it indefinitely. As it was, we lasted about as long as the average youth worker…2 years.
[12](Satellite was the hands down favorite cassette when the guys were in my car. I just couldn’t seem to get them interested in Rich Mullins, who was my favorite artist at the time. I have a couple particularly fun memories of yelling “The world is a ghe-tto.” or “Boom…Boom” with the 4 kids in my car as loud as we could. Phil, a Yo-yo Ma devotee, was not impressed. Sometimes the boys would ‘battle’ in the car, but I had a no-profanity rule, forcing them to rely on word and rhyming-pairs they were unaccustomed to. The fun thing is that I would occasionally throw down and acquit myself surprisingly well simply on the strength of a reasonable vocabulary and thousands of hours of listening to old school hip hop in high school


Bri said...

I was in Buffalo last week, and thought of your's and Amanda's experiences there while driving through the city. I find those old neighborhoods along (the) 33 and (the) 198 hauntingly beautiful. We went to Pano's on Elmwood - good food, but I'll have to try to find Gabriel's Gate next time :).

Nancy said...

Hey Stan! I got to your blog by way of Dave's blog, by way of this new Buzz thing on Gmail, and saw this post...I couldn't believe it! I actually haven't read the whole thing yet, but (man!) I love Refreshing my memory...get it? :) I didn't know the story behind Phil! That's great! Oh! I miss "my church in Buffalo" sometimes! Once in a while I hear a song that I only know from going to that church or someone will talk about streets in Buffalo that I only know of because I carted kids around. Thanks so much, Stan!

JMBower said...

heh, as soon as I read the bit about the kids "battling" in the car, I KNEW that the next part to follow would involve you throwing down, drawn heavily with the snippets of urban culture that managed to be trucked in by moose to our remote northern outpost, growing up.

If I've never told you, I am quite the level of affinity I have for old school hip hop and or "urban culture" in general is directly related to you and Brandon Landas.