July 2009


I remember well the night I met the hippies for the first time. OK, they weren’t real hippies, but they were the tie-dyed, long haired, counter culture teenagers who would form the constituency of the Spanish Castle youth center when it opened in the summer of 1969.

I had just been hired to be the center’s first “director,” on a very part-time basis. My role was to be chaperone, counselor, and administrator to the teens who hung out at the old house after school and a couple of nights a week. Looking back, I was not the best choice for the job. My previous experience with “youth work” had been centered exclusively on church kids, mostly speaking at youth fellowship meetings and church camps. Only in the past year or so had I paid much attention to the music teens were listening to. And only that night did it occur to me that the teens who sat across the room from me were not exactly invloved in churches. That, it turned out, was kind of the point.

Some background is helpful here: how the Castle came to be, how the place wound up in our hands, and who those “hippies” really were.

First, how the youth center came to be. A teenager named Mike and a buddy were smoking pot one day after school, and Mike’s mom caught them.  I won’t tell you Mike’s last name, because he’s now a professor of music at a large university, and I’m not sure how much he wants his students to know about his youth. But his mother was a nurse and loved her son, and was very active in her church and its social ministry programs. When she confronted her son and his friend about their need for weed, the conversation eventually led to something about being bored, having nothing to do after school, and wishing for a place to get with friends, to make music (jam), and just hang out.

Mike’s mother knew that in their suburban area, the only place besides the school to hang out was near the big fountain at the shopping mall. She went to a meeting of a group known as BASIC (Bon Air-Southampton Interfaith Council) and shared her notion that a community center of some sort would be a helpful addition to the neighborhood. She had taken her son seriously and the council members took her seriously.

Eventually, someone from St. Michaels Epsicopal Church announced that the congregation was building a new educational building to house the church’s neighborhood kindergarden program. Therefore, the school would be leaving its home in an old house on the church property. Would that house be suitable as a drop-in center for teens? The church soon offered the “Overby House” to a new division of BASIC, to be called BASY, Inc., the nonprofit Bon Air-Southampton Youth.

The word spread among youth and adults in the community, and the old house passed their inspection. It needed some work: paint, spackle, furniture, and general clean-up. BASY, Inc. invited some adults in the community to develop governing board, and asked some teenagers to form their own board to come up with house rules. In the meantime, in a brilliant move, someone suggested a third tier for the house, an Advisory Board that included some professionals whose work directly involved adolescent development. The co-director of the Adolescent Clinic of the Medical College of Virginia, a pastor, a high school teacher, and a police officer were among the first invitees. We should have added a lawyer. (The reason for that need is coming up soon.)

So, there we were that night. A handful of dedicated adults, maybe ten teenagers in chairs lined against one wall, and the too-clean-cut-for-his-own-good young minister who was to shepherd the flock. It wasn’t long before one of the BASY Board members mentioned to the kids that I was a “deejay” on one of the top rock stations. Not quite accurate; but it didn’t hurt. Maybe I would sound more cool than I looked. More about that night in the next post…

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[I write this series with the hope that someone who once frequented the controversial youth center I staffed a generation ago might happen on this blog through a web search. The summer of 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Spanish Castle, an ecumenical, interracial ministry of an organization once known as Bon Air-Southampton Youth, Incorporated (BASY, Inc.). I’d like to see a Spanish Castle reunion sometime this year.]

As my seminary studies moved me toward graduation and my first call to the ministry in the  Presbyterian Church, I needed to augment a part-time position I was about to accept as a “minister of electronic media” in Richmond, Virginia. That ministry involved my local weekly rock radio show, as well as any other media opportunities I might create in the Richmond area. But the organization that sought to “call” me to that broadcast ministry had a very limited budget, and the call they were set to extend in the spring of 1969 was only for 3/4 time.

As that ad hoc group and I were trying to find a way to earn me a full-time wage, a fledgling youth ministry was forming on Richmond’s southside, more precisely in a suburban area called Bon Air. Earlier, as a first year seminary student, I had been assigned to “shadow” the pastor of the Bon Air Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Richard Perkins. It was an assignment designed to introduce would-be pastors to the work of ministry in a local congregation. We seminarians were to visit Session meetings, tag along on pastoral calls, worship occasionally at our assigned church, and write up an interview with the local pastor about his (and it was strictly a male thing in the late 60s!) daily work.

So I knew something of the Bon Air area. And I got to know it more intimately when someone realized that I would be available for work that would supplement my media call. The emerging ministry in that neighborhood had even less funding than the new media ministry I would be establishing, but the commitment of several Bon Air area churches would be sufficient to hire me on something close to a quarter time. Thus, my youth-oriented radio program was about to bring me face-to-face with part of my audience.

How the two new organizations (media ministry and youth center) met each other, I don’t recall. But they did negotiate for my time, and their shared contracts allowed me to be ordained to full time ministry in June, 1969.

(For the record, this youth ministry portion of my work would be operated under the auspices of a larger pre-existing ecumenical organization known as the Bon Air-Southampton Interfaith Council.)

Soon I would meet the counter-culture teenagers who turned an empty house into a creative, but controversial meeting space that built community among the young, while moving the neighborhood to hire a lawyer to close us down. See, the rest of the story is far more engaging than this opening chapter!

Tune in tomorrow.