Misconception 1: Keeping Them off of ‘the Streets’
I work at an after-school youth center which was started by a local organization a little over a year ago—October of 2011. The demographic is mostly middle-school-aged kids (sixth through tenth grade) in a small but urban town of increasingly Latino (mostly Puerto Rican) population. As may be expected, we have the basic amenities of an urban youth center: ping pong, pool, and air hockey tables; various video game systems; and, of course, free food. With no clear precedent to base our program off of, we have more or less been laying the track down just ahead of our train from the get-go, shifting and adapting as circumstances require it. I am the only current staff member (besides the director) who has remained on staff since opening day, which I only say to illustrate that I have walked (and am walking) through the reformation of my own misconceptions over the last fifteen months (and hopefully to illustrate another point later on (also, sorry for all the parentheses)).
It is my understanding that the discussion of opening a free center for ‘the youth’ in town has been going on for the last six years or more among many prominent and influential community leaders and heads of local organizations, as well as churches. This is to say that there is a clearly perceived need. Our city has a population of only thirty-thousand or so and is surrounded on all sides by Pennsylvanian farmland, but the big-city problems of gang violence, drug trade, racism, homelessness, broken families due to neglect or abandonment or imprisonment, not to mention the highest concentration of mental illness that I have ever seen in so small an area, are all as evident here as in any major American city. As is common in such settings, ‘the streets’ are viewed with fear and disdain, as a problem to be solved or buried, and as something which any good Christian or generally upstanding citizen should keep their children safe from.
This stigma isn’t completely unfounded; I know that. It is often in the streets and alleys where crimes of violence, theft, rape, and so on take place, and where the influence of gangs and drugs flow through. But it still makes me feel as if we’re stopping short of the real need for the sake of meeting the perceived one, which often requires almost nothing of us.
Which brings me back to the ping pong tables. There has always been a part of me bothered by these provisions, these ‘alternatives’ to whatever might meet our kids on ‘the street.’ At the risk of drawing too dark or ominous a parallel, the ping pong tables in the youth center (perhaps as a symbol alone) have always reminded me of Richard Wright’s harrowing naturalistic novel, Native Son. In Wright’s novel, a wealthy and prominent figure in the community, Mr. Dalton (whose daughter Mary is famously murdered by the protagonist Bigger Thomas), makes a donation of a dozen or so ping pong tables to the “South Side Boys’ Club.” While the intention was (probably) mostly good and was meeting the perceived need of keeping ‘at-risk’ boys ‘off the streets’ by giving them something else to do, it really did nothing for Bigger and his friends. Max, who becomes Bigger’s defense-attorney at the end of the novel, asks him:
“Yeah, but what the hell can a guy do with ping pong?”
“Do you feel that that club kept you out of trouble?”
Bigger cocked his head.
“Kept me out of trouble?” he repeated Max’s words. “Naw; that’s where we planned most of our jobs.”
I feel I should say at this point that I have nothing against ping pong whatsoever and have thoroughly enjoyed teaching some basic skills of the game to my kids at the youth center. There’s something gratifying about seeing kids develop in a simple, accessible game, especially for the kids whose ‘small’ achievements in such games might be the only ones they feel they have. But there is a level to which considering these table games to be meeting our kids’ real needs is foolish at best and a cop-out at worst.
Again, to quote Max in Native Son: “This boy [Bigger] and a million like him want a meaningful life, not ping pong.” Max’s mildly racist terminology notwithstanding, that urban kids often are not expected (in some cases not encouraged) to succeed, to achieve their dreams, or even to have dreams—the very fuel of a meaningful life—is no understatement. If the perceived trajectory of their life is in the ‘certain’ direction of prison, drug-addiction, babies from multiple partners, and so on—a direct side effect of ‘the street’—then keeping them off of it improves the quality of their life greatly. And furthermore we’ve done our Christian (or civil) duty.
But what if their lives were worth so much more than preventative measures? What if their real needs go beyond a safe haven where they can play ping pong (as important and beneficial as that can be)? What if God is calling us to reform our ideas of what His kids can become and how we are meant to engage them?
In my experience (at least with my kids), I have found that presence and consistency are the most important gifts to give—for them to know you’re going to be there and not leave when ‘something better’ comes along, be there even when they screw up or do something wrong, be there even when YOU screw up and do something wrong.
(As a side-note: how you act at your ‘worst’ is absolutely crucial—maybe more crucial than how you act at your ‘best.’ My wife has reminded me on several occasions when my heart was broken over how I’d lost my temper at a kid at work or something, that lots of kids have adults do wrong to them and never own up to it or apologize or pursue grace. So for you to do that even when you break their trust speaks volumes about why they can still trust you.)
Also, I think you have to be way more concerned with being there for them, seeing them how God sees them, and loving them how God loves them (including having your heart broken on their behalf) than you are with witnessing any kind of obvious life change. It’s important to have hopes and dreams for them, and more important to enable, encourage, facilitate them to have hopes and dreams for themselves—to achieve things, create things; to think well and act uprightly. But if you concern yourself with behavioral modification, or with any certain outcome other than the relationship that’s right in front of you, I think you actually miss the bigger thing and possibly deeper change that’s happening; you deprive yourself and the kid of the opportunity to show you (surprise you, even, with) how you’ve affected them. (What’s even more awesome is when you realize how much they’ve impacted you.)