Here in the city we have an afterschool ministry three days a week, offering a safe place for kids to get a hot meal after school, get help with their homework, work on literacy, and sometimes do crafts and games. Last year we were averaging about 45 kids a day and another 30 kids on top of that, who did not come for the program but came to pick up weekender bags of groceries we distribute one day a week.
Last year we found we needed more space and moved the program from a row house by the church into the basement of the church with a larger kitchen and more space.
This year when we opened our doors, and by day 2 we had 60 kids. By the second week we had to cut it off at 70 but between others coming who we could not accept and a few kids we had to ask to leave for behavioral reasons we could have been at 90.
When we had hit 60 kids on day 2, I literally went into re-think mode with our volunteer director and we grew again, moving into another room of the basement. We are now in all of the rooms of the basement.
And we are scrambling everywhere for volunteers but God is gracing us in many ways.
This is all the backdrop for what I really wanted to write about.
One of the strengths of our ministry is that we offer something different than the street and in some cases, offer something different than home. We know that sadly there are many reasons why the kids bond heavily with us- some are starved for attention as much as for food. Some have no role models for how to get along in the world. Sadly I can look at some and see their future stretching out in front of me and know it will involve jailtime, teen pregnancy or substance abuse.
But most of the kids we see are delightful, and funny and loving and trying hard to get by in school.
A few of our kids are gifted academically or are real models of leadership in places like JROTC or the arts.
These are the things that sometimes surprise others-
just like it is easy to assume what means to live in the city, we can fall into a pattern of thinking we know what city people are like. And when you live here it is easy to succumb to the belief that only certain things are possible. Or only certain people can be trusted and quickly people fall into defensive or offensive strategies. These are the things that our neighborhood kids learn.
Some learn that yelling and fighting are the answer. Some learn that lying and accusing are a good way to avoid things. And in groups of 60, this means we have to try hard to reinforce why the culture of this place is different.
Last week a small group of kids began to gather around one young girl. I have watched her almost patrolling the neighborhood. She is fiesty and bossy and physically confrontational. More importantly she has the capacity to get others to do her bidding.
Last week as she had left on our grocery distribution day, she came back to the door and demanded I find her little brother because she had forgotten him. I suggested she walk to the other door where people were not lined up to get groceries and others could help her. She began yelling and encouraging her posse to yell at me. She and another girl held up a cell phone and demanded that unless I left what I was doing to find this boy she was calling 911 to say I had kidnapped him. I laughed it off and sure enough he came out from around the corner from the door I had said would be the place to go.
I have watched this girl shakedown others for things she wants and at 10 years of age, she has well developed patterns and minions to help her.
Fast forward to this week when I could not be at the program on a rainy day but was called and told that outside the building of the church there had been a big fight. Where kids were holding down a boy so that this same dominant girl could hit him. The noise had made a local mom go to the window to see what was going on only to see that it was her son being hit. She came out and the fight broke up. But needless to say there was a lot of commotion and emotion as she came to our volunteers and wanted to know what had happened. And at least two moms were furious with each other about what had happened.
Of course the challenge was, while these were all kids from the program. The fight happened outside and just down the street, not inside. And we had not seen it all go down. But following the policy we had put into place, the director called the adult contact for each of the kids connected with the fight and invited them to a meeting the next day. The goal was that each kid would come with his or her parent or guardian and we would talk about what happened and who was involved in what way and what it all meant.
The moms connected with the victim, and those seen as holding the victim came.
No one came connected with the girl who was the hitter.
There we were with the three kids and the two moms, the volunteer director and myself as the pastor.
Since the moms are Hispanic and this was an emotional subject, English quickly turned into Spanish as the mom of the boy who was hit and then the boy himself talked about what happened. Then the mom of the other two kids began to talk and to ask questions first of the boy, but then quickly turning to her own two kids and demanding them to tell the truth. She told them she would not punish them for telling the truth but that they needed to be honest.
What emerged was that they had been with this aggressive girl and another larger boy who was not connected with our program but was known to the girl. That when the physical confrontation began the one kid was trying to break it apart and the other was trying to keep the victim from responding with aggression. That it all went down fast and that it was too big for them. That they had not realized what would happen.
I pushed a little bit on this and reminded the one girl of the events of the week before, pointing out that when she was not with this aggressive girl, she was a totally different person. That I was saddened to see who she became and that it would not be a path she should choose.
Both of the moms knew of the aggressive girl and shared other stories of bad connected with her, how they have told their kids to stay clear and this is why.
At this point the mom of the two kids confessed that she had no idea when she signed her daughter and son up that our program was at a church, but that as a believer she now was embarrassed. She spoke of having been in a bad car accident and being brought back to life and how she promised God she would live because she knew there was something she was to do. And how it was a blessing that while this was hard, God brought her here.
She and the other mom commisserated about being single moms and both looked at their kids and told them- these people are doing great things for us because they are Christians- they are doing this because of Jesus. You all need to apologize and remember that we are not going to act like this. They pushed hard, almost too hard, as the kids have tears in their eyes.
I turned to the bookcase behind me and picked up the cross sitting there. I held it up and told the kids that things went down fast and we all make mistakes but what matters most is what this cross means- forgiveness because God loves us. That I wanted each of them to be there and to be the really great people I know God has made them to be. And that this cross is also about the power of peace.
Transformative love was taking shape.
The two moms not only were no longer ready to take each other on, but had connected.
We talked about how our neighborhood is not the place people assume it is, and does not have to be the place some want to make it be. That this is an opportunity to think about how we walk together and with Jesus to make it be the place it ought to be.
We stood up to end our meeting and as we did, the door opened and in came the aggressive girl with four kids in tow but no adult. The moms looked at her and said
"We're done here, let's not revisit all this again."
We reminded the girl that to be here she needed to have an adult. That when we could sit with her and an adult, she could return and that we hoped that was possible.
She was escorted out.
I really wish she could return but without adult buy-in, my fourteen months of knowing her suggest there is not great hope otherwise.
Sometimes when I have said that we could reach out to the parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents of these kids, there has been trepidation, a kind of "if you think so" that belies lack of trust by our volunteers. We're not sure perhaps that we should. While in some cases this reaching out is not possible or fruitful, God showed that for us to use the broadbrush approach that keeps others as recipients of our benevolence and not co-workers in the kingdom, means we miss out on a part of the amazingly transformative power of that cross.
As we stood to end our time and before I could ask, one of the moms asked if we could all hold hands and pray. What a perfect way to solidify where we had been and who now united us.
As the kids went down to the program, we talked about our vision and hopes and about how they might be helping hands as they were able, not only because they now have a more connected interest, but because we have others who need to hear, and how some of those need to have people they can culturally relate to. I apologized that my speaking of Spanish is not as quick as my understanding what I read or hear.
"Oh Pastor, we help you. This is how we can help you."
We talked about worship and their desire to come, but also the possibility of developing an informal Wednesday night worship time that connected with the ending time of our afterschool program.
We talked about how to share this vision in their respective parts of the neighborhood and the power of women to nurture change rather than be victims. And to demand more. I am reminded of Leymah Gbowee's work- "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."
This fall I wondered why now the sky rained kids, then I wondered why this violence, but out of this I am increasingly convinced that God is breaking open something new. Healing and hope and promise.
There will still be violent kids, but my prayer is that we won't just turn away or yell about it.
We are going to proclaim Jesus into it.
Step by step, trusting in God's work in all of us.