Tag Archives: youth

Bullets on the Tennis Court, or Mission trip to East St. Louis, part 1

Lessie Bates Davis logoThere was a bullet on the tennis court.  Not a spent shell. A fired bullet. Among the mess of leaves, sticks, and broken glass, one of our youth reached down and picked it up, looked at it for awhile then said, “I found a bullet.”  I knew right away he wasn’t joking.  I looked at the little cone-shaped piece of metal.  I don’t know enough about guns and ammo to know anything about its caliber, what weapon it was fired out of, or any details.  There was probably something else we could have done with it, but all I said was, “throw it away.”  So he tossed it in the garbage bag and we went about our business of cleaning up the tennis courts at Lincoln Park in East St. Louis, Illinois.

We were a group of nine youth and three adults.  Some were inside the Mary Brown Center, working with some kids from the neighborhood.  Most of us were outside sweeping.  It was unseasonably cool for late July in Saint Louis.  It was a gray morning, and we were looking for something to do.  Miss Terry had told us that the tennis courts were unusable because of all the broken glass, so we decided to try and sweep it up.  We had some rakes, brooms, trash bags, and a dust pan.  We raked the sticks, leaves, and grass into big piles and swept the broken glass into the dustpan.  Even when we were joined by about a dozen youth from the neighborhood, most working for a few dollars an hour, we realized there was no way we were going to clean up the courts entirely.  By the time we finished though, I would have felt a lot better about kids playing there, as long as they had good shoes on.

Of course, it was entirely possible that once the sun went down, the park would be filled with young people with nothing better to do than throw their empty bottles into the courts.  Miss Terry hoped though, that the presence of people cleaning it up would discourage them.  We could hope.

The first day of the mission trip did not go exactly as we had planned.  We had planned to show up at the Mary Brown Center at 8:15 so we had plenty of time to set up our version of Vacation Bible School for the 25-30 seven to nine year old kids that would arrive at 9:00 a.m.  We had planned to spend the two hours with them in neatly divided groups so we could have 20 minute sessions of worship, devotion, Spanish, art, dance, and closing worship.  We had planned to stay to do some other kind of chores around the center until having lunch, and then going about the rest of our day in Saint Louis.  They say that if you want to give God a good chuckle, tell him your plans.

The Mary Brown Center is a part of Lincoln Park.  The geodesic dome houses a beautiful gymnasium.  The Center is also home to most of the youth programs of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.

The Mary Brown Center is a part of Lincoln Park. The geodesic dome houses a beautiful gymnasium. The Center is also home to most of the youth programs of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.

On the first morning drive to the Mary Brown Center, I got turned around.  I took the wrong exit after crossing the bridge.  I read the map, but the streets I wanted to drive did not go through.  After a process that included about four u-turns, our two minivans arrived at the Center at about 8:50.  We were welcomed graciously by Miss Terry.  She gave us a quick tour of the facility.  There are two main sections of the Center.  There is the beautiful domed structure that houses an immaculate gymnasium, and there is the education wing, home to a computer lab, a youth room, a dining room, offices, and a larger room with tables for seating and table games.

During the tour she told us about the pool, which would be opening for the first time in five years, and the tennis court, which despite having the money set aside for new nets, rackets, and balls, was unusable because it was covered in broken glass.  We unloaded the vans, started setting up our stations, and waited for the kids to start coming.  At about 9:30, there were about four kids.  That’s when I asked Miss Terry what else we could do.  I thought of trying to clean up the courts.

Some stayed inside with the kids that came, and as the morning went on a few more trickled in, and others swept the courts.  That is when I felt the futility of what we were trying to do.  We were invading this space, not sure of our place, unsure of our role, wondering what the mission of this trip was really going to be.  We had all the right plans, but the reality of the situation weighed heavily on my heart.  And then we found the bullet.

“What the heck are we doing here?” I wondered.  Then I kept sweeping.  I could pick up glass, and if that was all I was meant to be doing, then I was going to do it well.  We worked for about an hour and a half.  When we left, there were still young people sweeping in the courts.  There were others outside the fences, laughing at those that were foolish enough to pick up a broom.  Later I talked to our youth about the courage it took to remain there while their friends taunted them.  We agreed that those that remained there to clean up their park were among the bravest people we had ever met.

To Miss Terry’s enormous credit, she sat down with us for awhile before we left and taught us about what the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House was all about.  She told us about her struggles as a community leader.  She told us about the kids on the corner with no hope.  She told us about the adult leaders that give their time and their energy so that they did not have to lose another kid to the street.  When I asked her, “What do you mean by lose them?” I knew that the only answer anyone needed was that bullet we found on the tennis court.

Part 1 – “Bullets on the tennis court.”

Part 2 – “You were made in the image of God”

Part 3 – “Not ‘goodbye,’ just ‘See you later.'”

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Be You. Be God’s. Be the Church.

Audio file of the full sermon.  The music that plays during this sermon is by Christopher Grundy.  The songs are called “Out on This Wire,” and “Stepping In.”  The mission projects I talked about are the Redbird Mission, and Kids Against Hunger.

“Be You. Be God’s. Be the Church.”

Jeremiah 1:4-10

 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,

says the Lord.’
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lordsaid to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’

Excerpts from the sermon:

“Being called into God’s ministry is for all who claim Christ.  Those who call themselves Christian are called to do more, to be more, to be transformed, to be a part of God’s work in this world.  God is calling.  God is speaking today.  God is calling you to be you; to be who God created you to be.  There are a lot of stories, a lot of descriptors people use to define themselves.  All too often we define ourselves by who we’re not.  ‘I’m not old enough. I’m not strong enough. I don’t speak well enough.  I’m not educated.  I’m not good enough.  I’m not qualified. I’m not pretty enough. I’m not smart enough.’  It’s all lies.  It’s all lies.  But all too often we believe them.  It’s so easy to believe the excuses, and say ‘No I can’t do it….’  But God is calling you to tune out the lies, and let go of all the obstacles, and to be who you were created to be.

“Allowing yourself to be God’s is hard sometimes.  Being God’s means that there will be words you are called to speak that you don’t want to speak.  There are places you are called to go that you don’t want to go.  There’s forgiveness that you need to offer that you don’t want to offer.  There is shame that you are called to let go, but for some reason you still cling to.  There is a neighbor that needs a friend.  There is a stranger that needs a hand.  A young person that needs a mentor.  It’s not always easy.  And if you try to do it on your own, it will be impossible.  Because this is God’s work.”

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Translators Needed

From Top Left: Winking smiley, the twitter bird, the cross and flame of the United Methodist Church, hulu, The logo for the greatest blog ever written, the Orwellian behemoth known as Google, an iphone, the logo for Riverside United Methodist Church, another winking smiley, Oh My Gosh (cry of astonishment), facebook, youtube, Laugh Out Loud (something people are rarely doing when they type those letters) an icon for a Bible iphone app, Yahoo.

I wonder how many people would be able to look at the picture above and know what all of these pictures mean.  Considering one of the images is the logo from this blog, and another is the logo from my church, I’m guessing that very few would know all of them.  I wonder though, how many from our churches would know what the little blue bird represents?  How many people in our congregations haven’t the slightest idea what a tweet is?   

Many of the same people who are (sometimes proudly) technophobic, digging in their heals against the use of social media, technology, and other new forms of communication, are also despondent about the lack of young people sitting amongst them in their pews.  They talk longingly of the “good old days” when the churches were full and the Sunday school was bustling, and the building was growing, and the budgets were plentiful (never mind that the good old days also included silence on issues like domestic violence, racial equality, and an utter lack of understanding or compassion surrounding gender issues).

Youth culture has always been misunderstood by adults.  That is why it is called “youth culture.”  Youth have a different way of communicating and relating to their friends.  They have a different understanding of what it means to be a citizen, what good music is, and what is funny.  Youth are no longer satisfied with consuming media – they want to participate in it.  Things like twitter, facebook, youtube have given young people a platform to broadcast every detail of their lives.  And the funny thing is – people are listening.  A video of some kid lip syncing a song in front of their computer camera has been watched by millions of people.  Millions!  Big downtown cathedrals that were filled in the 50s might have reached 5,000 – maybe.

All this boils down to this: If you want to communicate to young people, you need to know a new language.  The church needs translators.  In order to reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ, people need to be able to speak the language of those we are trying to reach.  And if we are trying to reach young people, you have to at least know what those things are. 

The images above represent vast changes in culture and language.  Google used to be a number.  Then it was a website.  Now it is a verb.  Hulu – and other technologies – have rendered such cultural stalwarts like Primetime Network Programming obsolete.  There are no networks.  There is no prime time.  Facebook has changed the way we think about things like privacy, photo albums, prayer, politics, and even wedding invitations.

There is a new language, and if we are going to translate the language of Jesus Christ – the language of grace, forgiveness, compassion, justice, and love, we need to know the new language.  It doesn’t mean that you have to run out and get a twitter account, but you should at least learn what it is.  Translation however, is about more than facebook pages, blogs, and tweets.  Translation is about taking the time to build relationships.

It is my deepest conviction that the heart of the Gospel message is relationship.  It is about our relationship with God and our relationship with one another.  The best way to translate the Good News of Jesus Christ is to live the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The best way to teach a young person about a faith that changes the world is to go out and change the world.  Jesus Christ has the power to transform lives, but it doesn’t always happen with a well-reasoned argument or an insightful Bible lesson.  It happens when someone who is already in love with Jesus tells somebody else about that love.

We need translators of the Gospel.  We need people who are willing to take the time to live authentic relationships with young people.  And authentic is the key.  We cannot put on airs.  Young people are savvy.  They see through BS.  That is why knowing the language is so important, we can’t fake it.  Translation only happens when people sincerely care.  Translation begins at home.  Young people might rebel, but their most important influence always has been and always will be their parents.

But here’s a warning for you:  If you are willing to be a translator of the Gospel, that means you are willing to put the power of the Bible into the hands of inexperienced, energetic young people.  It means that you are going to open up the power of the Holy Spirit to speak directly to people that might not think about church the way we think about church, people that might not think of music the way we think about music, people that might not think about God the way we think about God.  They might not think of our institutions, our meetings, our buildings, our worship, or our barriers in the same way we think about them.  Young people with the Holy Spirit might not do things the way we want them to because they might stop listening to us and start listening to God (Kendra Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, p.   130).  So be warned.  Translators are needed, but translate at your own risk.


Filed under Christianity, Sermons