by Lisa Long
Our church celebrated its 100th birthday just a couple of years ago. For half of that century it has been located less than a mile from a local public housing neighborhood. Last year this housing community was named one of the most dangerous places to live in the U.S. Although the members of our church and the folks living in this community have been neighbors for about five decades, we have interacted surprisingly little. It’s kind of amazing to think that so many years passed and our youth group knew not one soul from the community next door. But all that changed four years ago.
Just before the big change we were a small group, averaging somewhere around 30 kids on any given Wednesday night. Diversity was not our strong suit. We were quite comfy with our sameness. That’s when our youth ministry staff transitioned youth pastors. It was the hiring of this new youth pastor that changed everything. Our church invited to staff for the first time ever an African-American. He was a big guy. He was dark-skinned and wore long dreadlocks. His personality was as overpowering as his physical presence. We were very white. And he was very not. At the time of his hiring, the only diversity in our group existed primarily through multi-cultural adoptions by whites. From a cultural and economic experience, we were all the same. But that was about to change.

Remedy the Problem

Although we hadn’t noticed that we were a uniform society, it stuck out like a sore thumb to the new guy. Furthermore, I think it aggravated him that our youth group’s name implied diversity. I remember one of the first conversations with the new youth staff about this irony. The immediate consensus was that it must be remedied. The conversation began with a focus on the housing projects next door. It was the glaring logic we all overlooked for decades. There are youth living in that community. And they are within walking distance. I suppose no one considered it because on some level we feared that community. It was no secret that there were drugs and guns and theft and violence inside the walls of that community. Maybe deep down we knew we were ill-equipped. Yet, that’s what the church is all about, right? Aren’t we supposed to bring light into darkness, love where there is hate, life where there is death? We knew it was time. It was long past time. So, we were going in. The only question was how.
We were in great luck because a few years prior our church’s inner city ministry developed a Saturday outreach for children in this neighborhood. We decided that this would be the best way for us to reach out to the youth living there. So, we partnered with this “Kid’s Club” ministry. We played games, taught about Jesus, and provided meals on Saturday mornings. Our youth department helped staff Kid’s Club with youth leaders and youth. Pretty soon teenage kids were coming out to play football or just hang out and get to know us. We invited these teens to our youth group. Many of the students we met already had a strong bond with the man leading Kid’s Club, the hippie, long-haired biker they called Pastor Jim. Jim had been there for them in times of crisis and helped provide for them in times of need. Jim agreed to run a bus through the neighborhood on Wednesdays for youth who wanted to come to our youth group. Before we knew it our group quadrupled. Between this outreach and our effort in schools, we grew to average 126 in less than a year. Suddenly, we were ethnically and economically diverse. We were enamored with our accomplishments. So much so that none of us looked straight into the challenges that had accompanied this wonderful new reality. Instead, we committed a lot of time to teaching about love and acceptance.
Almost a year was devoted to the topic of love. We taught 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. We talked about love defined in Scripture as something you do—be patient, be kind, don’t envy, don’t boast, keep no record of wrong, etc. Every gathering was an opportunity to massage the message of love into our students. Our summer camp focused on always choosing love. We spoofed popular commercials by substituting our theme of “Always Love.” We made edgy-cool bookmarks outlining the attributes of love. Our t-shirts proclaimed “Always Love.” We were getting our message out and it was effective. Students who grew up in the church had open arms and hearts of love. But there was something brewing under the surface. Something we were trying to ignore. Because it was easier to focus on positive things like students from the neighborhood appearing to get along with “homegrown” students and furthermore, becoming family to the point that we weren’t seeing such distinct lines between groups anymore. So like a polished circus act we kept juggling the so called important balls.

Simmering Tensions

Our group continued to grow. We had achieved legitimate ethnic and economic diversity in our youth group. However, as our group grew bigger and bigger our problems grew bigger, but talking about those out loud was like overshadowing greatness with some ugly cloud of negativity. No one wanted to do that because great things were happening. Kids who were doing drugs were coming to youth group now. Kids who survived by stealing were in our spiritual family now. Kids who had been exposed to sexual behavior were part of our church now. Kids who were neglected and beaten were in our youth group now. Kids who believed they had to fight to survive were in our family now. Only coming to youth group, becoming part of our family didn’t mean they suddenly did a 180° on all that bad behavior. Those things came with them.
Subsequently, we were dared to dance more gracefully than we’d ever been challenged to before. We needed to teach without hurting, accept without condoning, and train without harming. Of course these things had previously been important but like a hot plate whose temperature had just been adjusted to high, all these matters were more sensitive than ever, subject to a rapid boil at the slightest provocation. It became our greatest job to create a safe place for everyone. Our environment needed to be safe for our neighborhood kids, many escaping from horrors at home and a safe place for kids who had grown up in our church, whose parents had spent their entire lives giving the bulk of their energy to protecting them from exposure to wickedness. And yet, nearly every week we had property stolen. Nearly every week we faced challenges we felt unprepared to handle. Frequently, it felt like these challenges towered over us like some massive giant.
Once our students were integrated, we learned the alarming truth that some of our neighborhood boys were approaching girls who grew up in the church for sex. Additionally, we had students coming to youth high. Complicating these difficulties was the fact that we had combined high school with middle school in the Wednesday large group teaching. Behavior involving drugs and sex had to be addressed immediately.
I will never forget the summer night we were just about to start youth when one of our neighborhood boys came running through an alley next to the church being chased by a police officer. That night I spent over an hour in the church parking lot with the local police who had two of our neighborhood youth cuffed in the back of separate cruisers. They were accused of stealing just down the street on their way to youth. I defended their hearts with the officer and with his permission climbed into the backs of each of the police cars with the boys to hug them, to make sure they knew that I loved them, to tell them that this mistake did not define them, and to tell them that I expected to see them back at youth when we got through this. We visited them in jail. We went to their trials and walked with them through their punishment.

Face the Challenges, Cultivate Love and Peace

It took a little while but they came back to youth. And nothing was more gratifying than the moment a year later when one of those boys was on stage in front of the entire youth group singing B.o.B’s “Both of Us” with my daughter in the summer camp talent show. They won. He was the group’s superstar that week. He’d gone from the back of a police car to singing about redemption and strength and community on a stage in front of his peers. It was a moment of knowing we had made a difference. But differences like that can’t be made by ignoring the ugly truths—the seedy underbelly of greatness. Transformation comes when we face and deal with the things we’d rather ignore.
The funny thing is the guy who first steered us down the path to distinction didn’t last. He was only with us for a couple of years. When he left we wondered if we would lose our coveted potpourri of people. The test was before us. Was this diversity real or just a following? Were we going to lose the kids we’d come to love? There were a handful of kids of every color lost at first. But we did not lose our hodgepodge of mixture as a group. We remained intact. We learned that true love, the love of God is colorless, it crosses economic boundaries. Our students know they are loved.
Next, we needed to deal with the matter of transformation. Confronting bad behavior had been a weakness up to this point. Therefore, we weren’t seeing much transformation. It’s not enough to become ethnically and economically diverse. Something great must come out of that diversity. It’s not enough to overcome differences. We must also achieve a unity in spirit. It’s not even enough to teach Biblical principles. We have to hold students accountable to walk in purity. I didn’t say perfection. I said purity.
None of us were prepared for how cultural experience would impact attitudes or how that would affect things like group participation and our ability to understand one another. Or how a white middle class boy might want to wrestle for fun but an impoverished black boy sees any form of touching his person as a physical threat that he must answer with force to maintain his reputation in his community. These cultural differences hold the potential to create clashes within the group that can at a moment’s notice turn violent.
Cultivating love and peace in a potentially hostile environment demands your full attention, spirit, and soul. Things like love and peace and mutual respect become more than buzzwords or social commodities, they become your life’s bread. These virtues must flow out of the good news of Jesus and His huge and equalizing love for all of us. Otherwise, we are merely peddling social reform neglecting what is greater, the redeeming power of Jesus’ blood. Blood that covers all of the colors of our skin and every pocket, whether empty or full. There are no favorites. We all are favorites.
Lisa Long is the Middle School Pastor at Belmont Church in Nashville, Tenn. where she has served Belmont’s Mosaic Youth for the past five years. She has walked with the group through two youth pastor transitions; during the last transition she served as Interim Youth Pastor for a little over a year. However, teaching, training, and shaping middle school students is her passion. Lisa holds a Doctor of Divinity from Tabernacle Bible College & Seminary where she is pursuing her Ph.D.