The other day, I was on the phone with a buddy of mine who is doing youth ministry in inner city Baltimore. One of the reasons that I have always loved this guy is that he never shies away from uncomfortable questions. He had read a few of the articles and blog posts about this youth ministry plus jobs stuff that we have been doing and had some questions. The conversation was great and got me thinking about posting more about why we are doing what we are doing at my church. So, I plan in the coming weeks and months to do about 10-15 posts on the "why" of what we are doing so that folks can get a broader sense of why youth ministry through the vehicle of social entrepreneurship matters.
Today will be on how we might be able to accomplish socioeconomic reconciliation through social entrepreneurship.
About 4 years ago now I was on a youth trip driving down the highway in a human death trap known as a 15 passenger van. As always, I was doing my best to eavesdrop on the conversations happening on the bench seats to my rear. This is always a tricky exercise since the music is usually blasting at about a billion decibels through partially blown speakers. What I overheard struck me at the time and is part of what influenced me to do what I am doing.
On my first bench seat were several students that you might call solid achievers. They come from relatively stable homes and have a clear college trajectory. As I listened to their conversation it was filled with anxiety and loads of talk about their class rankings, potential colleges, and A.P. test scores. Most of the conversation was a sort of flimsy teenage facade of confidence.
On the second bench seat were three young men from a working class town about 10 miles north of our church. These students were mostly digesting Vines and making jokes despite the requests that students not use them in the vans. To say working class is a bit unfair because in several cases, their families struggled to work at all. One lived in a trailer with no running water. The other lived with a grandma. Mom and Dad had never been in the picture and after winning a small sum in the lottery (20k) granddad had taken off with his girlfriend. Grandma was left with a mortgage, her physically taxing work the disabled, and her own physical health struggles. The third kid's home life vacillated between volatile and stable with people in and out of work.
What hit me right between the ears was that for all intents and purposes I had two youth groups. One was doing quite well for itself and the other was in a wrestling match with the world. Like other youth workers I knew, I was asking, "How do I bring these two groups from radically different worlds together?"
There is no question in my mind that we are dealing with a major socio-economic gap in our country. I can accept the fact that people may argue for dramatically different political solutions to the problem, but no one can deny the gap. I can see it in my students, in the "working class" neighborhood I live in, and in the neighborhoods around our church community. They once thrived...now they struggle to get by.
The truth is that most of what constitutes American Youth Ministry was designed for upper middle class kids who had loads of time on their hands. When you don't fit that category its tough to see why youth group or faith even speak to your world. My sense was that we needed something different to bring these two groups together. I was searching for a practical need that both groups had in common. My answer was work.
The "successful" kids on my bench seat needed jobs. Many of them have no idea how to work. Please don't read this as a "lazy millennials" rant either. It isn't. Many of these students are hard workers, but they lack certain work skills that I think used to be learned along the way. They go off and get a 4 year degree at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars (probably in debt) and then attempt to leap into the world having never worked around other adults in a professional capacity. Many of them are simply too busy to get jobs anymore. They have loads of activities that are designed to prepare them for the next 4 years of life rather than the next 40. Lots of them are conflict avoidant. They struggle to receive any direct critiques from an adult about what they do. They struggle to problem solve and often don't know how to adapt when given an open ended question or task to complete. But when your list of activities have precluded any form of personal autonomy, you struggle to know how to improvise creative solutions to problems. They also are terrified of making mistakes. They have often grown up with a sense that one mistake will derail the whole college success train. You could state this the opposite way by saying they are risk averse. Jobs tend to be the place that a lot of this is learned. They need environments where they can learn adults skills around adults instead of learning extracurricular skills around other teenagers.
Meanwhile, my second bench of students have much more wherewithal when it comes to the world. They still have bikes that they ride around their neighborhoods. They got in fights as kids and made some mischief. A couple of years ago, one of my students got really mad at his family. He was so pissed that he skateboarded across the I-205 bridge into Portland and managed to navigate multiple bus lines to get down to his Aunt's in MckMinville. There is no chance that my high performing students could have done that! It's over 45 miles away! My first bench students would have needed to form a collaborative team project for a grade to have the chutzpah to pull that off! And in all likelihood their parents would have called the school to shut the experience down! I digress.
The point is that the second bench students have a ton of skills that my wealthier kids need. What they don't have is some of the interpersonal skills, the connections, and the consistency. My second bench kids are likely to show up to an interview with a death metal t-shirt on. Or they might have the best looking shirt they can muster, but be sporting a three day man-child "moustache" or enough eye makeup to shock a clown. They might not know not to talk back to a supervisor. In their world, you better be able to dish back out what you just got verbally served. They are used to the rhythm of walking out rather than solving problems. Often they don't even get an interview with a local job because they are pegged the moment they walk through the door. They also often don't know how to maintain consistency. Nothing in their life has been. They struggle with transportation. They struggle with their phone being on and then off because of finances. How do you communicate consistently with a supervisor when your phone is always down. These are just a few of the issues.
The one experience that I saw that seemed to bring them together (though I am not naive about the gulf between the classes) was our summer work service camps. My sense was that a common purpose that was for a higher good and that put them on a relatively level playing field seemed to help them converse and interact. At least they could talk about what they had to accomplish together. They don't even get to do that at school anymore! Most of them are on completely separate academic tracks! They need, for different reasons, coaching on professionalism, conflict management, personal goal setting, discovering what they actually enjoy and are good at, and managing their money. All of this comes up in connection with the work place. And this is where my faith comes in with gusto.
In my mind, there is no more important ministry that we are engaged in than the ministry of reconciliation. We are invited to do this healing work around issues of economics, race, gender, and social relationships. The very identity of the church community is centered around the story of a God who wanted nothing more than to draw humanity back to himself. One of my great goals in this ministry is simply to help kids see themselves as inextricably connected to one another. I want them to sense that they need to learn from each other. My high end and low end kids have so much to offer each other! One groups is tough and adaptable. They don't get upset when things don't work out...it's the norm. The other group assumes as a birthright that they can accomplish what they set out to do. That the world is theirs to move and dream and achieve in. I need my low end kids to imbibe a little of that hope filled Kool-Aid of possibility. Each of these groups has the chance to redeem part of the image of God in the other. They have a chance to expose and heal certain gaps of humanity in the perspective of the other. Maybe work can bring them together for long enough for those lessons to be learned.
My sense is simply that work MIGHT be an important vehicle to bridge our growing class gap. The standard model of youth group won't do it and we have too many programs in our communities that are geared toward only one socioeconomic class of student. Our kids are stratified in terms of neighborhoods, academics, and sports. What if we could bring them together through social entrepreneurships that do business and serve the good of our communities? My sense is that there are a multitude of life giving gospel conversations in those interactions around justice, money, politics, and privilege that would spring up.
Am I on crazy pills?