August 2009


[More on the Spanish Castle, a youth center in the Bon Air suburb of Richmond, Virginia, circa 1969 – 1974.]

I’ve already painted a rather  stereotyped portrait of most of the teens who had hung around the Spanish Castle when it opened 40 years ago this summer. I called them “hippies,” though technically-speaking they weren’t. They may have dressed like them, and sometimes acted like them, but authentic hippie-dom wouldn’t have let them in. As the place grew in popularity among the local youth for whom the house was designed, the kids represented a broad cross-section of the community.

The youngest in the crowd was Eric, who was a year too young to be legal there. But he was such a straight kid (and more mature than some of the older teens) that no one blocked his coming to the Castle. Great personality, and a member of my church. Liz was one of the older girls, tall, long-haired, blue-jeaned, and artistic. She provided some of the early leadership of the house, and was enthusiastic about helping create some large collage murals for the Castle’s empty walls. Steven and Dori were the first “couple” in the house, both full of personality and laughs. They had to be watched, unable to keep their hands off each other! I would later perform their wedding ceremony, and they must be well past their 30th anniversary by now.

Robert was like a puppy, looking for someone to hang with, not particularly part of a group, but always willing to please. He helped with some radio interviews, was glad to assist with house details, and was a great conversationalist. He later went in the Service and wrote me several times before we eventually lost touch. To this day, when his name comes up in our home my wife laughs. She will always remember the day we moved from an apartment into our first house, and Robert, bless his willing heart, offered to help us. I carried some heavy boxes of books, and Joan began with an arm-load of clothes from a second floor closet. Robert began by carrying a handful of clothes hangers from the apartment to the rental truck. Must have had eight or ten of  ’em in all. Joan knew at that point that we should have asked more kids to help!

I remember one boy from the neighborhood, just a block or so away from the Castle. His name was Lee. His older brother had shown up a few times in the Castle’s early days, but he was usually pretty spaced-out, high on something, maybe acid. Lee, though, projected an image of innocence, not an angel, but burdened by a sadness he never tried to explain. Until one night when he knocked at the locked door of the closed house.

By this time, the Castle program had developed beyond a mere drop-in center. We had a drama group that wanted to put on a couple of one-act plays. We had a free-wheeling discussion group that met weekly. And there was, thanks to the “Jesus Revolution” of the early 70s, a teen-initiated Wednesday night prayer meeting. It was held after-hours, so that 1) no one would feel we were imposing a religious agenda on them, but more, 2) it was quiet once the pool players and rowdies had left.  The kids who valued the prayer time would come before closing, those who weren’t into that would leave, and once the door was locked no one else would be admitted.

We would gather, sitting in a circle on the floor of one of the second story rooms, and I would usually lead brief devotional to get us started on things spiritual. Then we’d do a personal “check in” with anyone who wanted to share something chiming in. At some point that particular evening, there was a knock at the front door. I sent one of the kids down to tell whoever it was that we were closed for the night. My envoy reported back to us saying, “It’s Lee, and he wants to come up. He looks like he’s been crying.  Should I let him in?”

Of course. Lee came upstairs and with little invitation spilled out his story. His mother was drunk. His brother was high. We already knew his father hadn’t been in the picture for years. Lee began to cry. “I’m only fourteen and I’m too young to be the head of my family! I can’t do this anymore.” The kids sitting near him reached out to him, and the others in the circle offered words of empathy. There were many tears. We prayed. Nothing very profound, but full of love and compassion. I guess that was  profound. I was thinking, this is exactly what we had hoped this house would become: a refuge, a community of youth who cared about and for one another.  Everything we had done to open and keep open this place was worth the effort.

Then a splash of reality, surprisingly cold. When our time that night had come to an end, with Lee comforted and strengthened by the voiced and visible love of his Castle friends, one teenage girl, new to the prayer group, took me aside and asked if that night’s experience was typical of what she might expect in the future. “Because, if it’s always going to be like this, I’m not coming back. It’s so depressing.”  Yes. Cold.

Different strokes for different folks. —Sly Stone

Next…the death of one of the Castle teenagers.

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In previous entries, I’ve been writing of the Spanish Castle Youth Center, long gone, but still remembered by some neighbors in the Bon Air suburb of Richmond, Virginia. And I’ve told the story of one of those teenagers, Susan. Her story continues in these excerpts of a sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday a few years ago:

____________________

I remember a Pentecost Sunday several years ago when I was embarrassed for the church. I was in the ministry, but not in parish work at the time. So, I sat where you are sitting–as a worshipper at an eleven o’clock Sunday morning service.

 The sanctuary was decorated for Pentecost with large banners, one flaming red, portraying tongues of fire; another depicted a dove descending, white and gentle. On the lectern and pulpit there were red paraments. Over the pastor’s shoulders, a red stole. All signs of a liturgically correct Pentecost. One red symbol remained hidden for awhile–the wine of Eucharist.

 As the prelude began, I scanned the bulletin briefly, and then began my worship in silent prayer. Then I opened my eyes and noted the ushers showing worshippers to their seats. I wasn’t surprised that there was only an average number of people on this so-called “festival” day. After all, unlike Christmas and Easter, Pentecost lacked pageants and pageantry, well-loved hymns, cultural anointing, and greeting cards. What did surprise me was “the lady in red.”

 She was walking down the aisle nearest me, her dress cardinal red and, well, stunning. It was Susan. Now an attractive young woman in her mid-twenties, she had been a teenager when I first met her. I hadn’t ever seen her in church before, although I knew she had been a child of that particular congregation.

 That morning she was alone. “Susan,” I whispered. She turned and smiled, and sat down next to me.

 “Hello,” she said quietly. “I’m so glad I recognized somebody. Do you mind if I sit here?”

 “No, of course not. I’m so glad you’ve come.”

 With the prelude nearing its conclusion, Susan explained quickly that she was home for the weekend, had promised to come to church with her mother, but her mother wasn’t feeling well now, so she had decided to come to church anyway since it was, as she put it, “the birthday of the Church–Pentecost.”

 I replied lamely that I didn’t bring any balloons or party hats, and she smiled, but only out of courtesy. Then we were called to worship.

 The leader said, “We have come to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

The people responded, “We have come to celebrate Pentecost and to open ourselves to God’s Spirit, that it might fill us.”

 The leader said, “We gather in the renewing life the Spirit gives to us all.”

 And the people read from their bulletins, “Let us then worship God, bringing praise and song, joy and laughter. Let the world hear our voices and see our dance of new life.”

 I had found the opening hymn, and as I shared the hymnal with Susan, I found more exhilaration in her presence than in the music. Susan was in church–her home church–on Pentecost–and I was very glad…

I remember wanting that service to be especially helpful and welcoming to her. I wanted her to feel at home, to feel the presence of the Spirit in that gathering, to find spiritual food and to feel surrounded by Christ’s love. I wanted that service to be full of Pentecost excitement and inspiring proclamation. I wanted our church to live up to her expectations that morning.

 And what a promising beginning: “Let us worship God, bringing praise and song, joy and laughter. Let the world hear our voices and see our dance of new life.”

 But, near the end of the service, a rather formal Presbyterian order, just after the benediction, Susan touched my arm and said, “The Holy Spirit sure wasn’t in this service today. I really thought Pentecost would be a little more alive.”

 She was right again. And I was embarrassed for the church. Our words were lofty, but empty. Our intentions were honest, but unfulfilled. Our songs were joyless. Our worship, uninspiring. I couldn’t defend what we had done, nor could I promise that another week would have been anything more than routine.

 As far as I know, she never returned.

 + + + + +

 I don’t know where Susan’s spiritual journey has led since that Pentecost Sunday long ago. On the one hand, I hope she is still full of zeal for the Lord, holding on to the excitement of her new life, especially if she thinks about what might have been. But, I suspect also that she has discovered that there is more to the faith than her personal experience; and that there is more to life than constant joy, and laughter, and dancing. She has no doubt discovered, as have we all, that there are times–sometimes long times–when God is quiet, when the mighty wind of Pentecost quiets to the gentlest breeze, almost imperceptible…and when the raging fire of God’s presence, though never extinguished, softly glows, peacefully.

 If the Spirit speaks in the ecstasy of strange tongues, so the Spirit whispers gently at a child’s baptism in water. If the Spirit once roared violently through the community of faith like a rushing wind, surely the Spirit also speaks in the still, small voice that coaxes us to church when we’d rather enjoy the sanctuary of a  spring-time garden. If the Pentecost power of the mighty Spirit energized the Church for its mission and turned timid disciples into bold apostles who would leave their secure upper room to turn the whole world upside down with faith…that same power is behind the quiet gifts of the Spirit that have kept the Church alive generation after generation–the gifts of wisdom and knowledge, healing and discernment, varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.

 I hope Susan’s faith has matured, so that she understands that she belongs to the Spirit and that the Spirit does not belong to her–that the Spirit blows where it wills, and it is a sign of God’s grace, unsolicited, unexpected, undeserved. (Texts For Preaching) And I hope she has come to realize it is the Holy Spirit that has taken possession of all of us, in Word and Sacrament, opening to us the wonder of life as God intended it from the very beginning. As the scriptures proclaimed this morning, the reality of the apostles’ Pentecost experience was new life, sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life. New life for the Church. New life for individuals within the Church, new life through the Spirit of God.

 While that new life may not be always evident in every element of our worship, it does breathe life into every church program, every ministry of outreach and nurture, every occasion of authentic fellowship, every opportunity for counseling, every hospital visit, every gesture of compassion for members or strangers, every bit of carpentry in the building, every note of music sung or played to the glory of God, and every prayer from the heart.

 I hope Susan’s faith journey has led to those affirmations of the Spirit’s work. But as our faith matures, we can learn something from Susan’s story. I wonder how many Susans there are out there (or in here) waiting to hear about Jesus. How many know the history of Christianity, but know nothing of its heart? How many hear words of judgment, but experience little grace? What the Spirit teaches us through Susan is that at Pentecost the Church was empowered for a purpose–and that purpose is proclamation. The Church is given the gift of speaking: the ability and the courage and the call to communicate the gospel to the ends of the earth, and to your neighbor and friend…

The gift of Pentecost is a word to speak in the brokenness and tragedy of the world–as well as in the joyful dance of new life. And that Word is Christ.

If Susan were here today, beside you in worship, would she sense the Spirit’s presence, see the Spirit’s work, or hear the Word from your lips. Or mine?

 We covet the drama of the Pentecost event for our time, for our lives, for our church. That is why we must continue to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” And, like the apostles, we too shall have the power of speech, the fruits of the Spirit, and new life in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.

Our next hymn is our prayer  from yearning hearts:  “Come, O Spirit, Dwell Among Us.”

“I found the Lord.”

“Really.”

Of all people. Susan. I won’t go into all the reasons I found her revelation surprising. But, she wouldn’t have been on my list of likely Lord-finders.  “Are you kidding?”

“No, I’m serious.” During her months-long absence from our ecumenically run youth center, Susan had somehow fallen in with the right crowd. I’m disappointed that I can’t recall more details of her conversion experience. I don’t recall whether she had been invited to a Christian youth fellowship in the area, or whether she went there searching…or whether a trusted friend had invited her to a local church. Susan had been raised in one of the churches that supported our drop-in center, but one thing or another (or several) had pushed/pulled her away from that church and when she had first come to the youth center she was into a lot of things church folk frown on.

Maybe she  had felt frowned on. Even with some details lost to the three-plus decades of time that has passed since our conversation the day she came back to the Spanish Castle, I do remember a couple of things vividly. One was where we were sitting, what the light was like coming through the upstairs windows that afternoon, and how I felt when she asked me a challenging question.

“I’m curious about something,” she began. “This place is run by churches, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why didn’t anyone tell me about the Lord in all the months I was coming here?” I took the question personally, of course. It was as if she were saying, “Why didn’t you  tell me about Jesus…”  It wasn’t a query meant to condemn. I took her question to be born of genuine curiosity. We gave her and scores of her friends a place to meet, to talk, to play pool, to listen to music, to have a safe place of their own…but we had kept to ourselves the one thing that Susan now knew she had needed.

Feeling a bit defensive, I explained that, yes, the Spanish Castle Youth Center was created by and sustained by several local churches. All the adults involved with the place on a day-to-day basis were volunteers from those churches. But from the beginning, “we” had decided that our Christian witness would be one of presence  instead of words.  Using the vernacular of the day (the early 70s), we didn’t want to lay some religious trip on kids who came in the door, fearful that the very ones who needed the place most would feel unwelcome if they didn’t share our beliefs.

“We never made a secret of the fact that the Bon Air churches started the place, nor that the house was owned by the Episcopal church next door. And I was certainly open about being a Presbyterian minister.”

“But even you didn’t talk about the Lord,” she countered. As if to say, you’d think that might have come up at some point!

All I could do now was ask my own sincere question, not to spar with her, my new sister in Christ, but to see if our subtle youth ministry might be redeemed from her legitimate concern.

“Susan, let me ask  you  a question. Suppose when you first came here, we had talked to you directly about Jesus, and told you that he was your Savior, and challenged you to believe in him, accept him, and to live in him? Or, short of that verbal witness, suppose we had Christian tracts laying around everywhere, and religious posters on the wall, and prayed before every shared activity. Would you have come back after your first visit?”

“No. I know I wouldn’t have. I see your point.”

Aha, I thought. I scored a point.

Her response: “But, you know, as we all got to know one another better, and as we became friends, that would have been a good time to be more open about the Lord. Don’t you think the kids here need to have a relationship with Christ?”

So it went. Born again Susan was right, but I also knew that “there is a time for every purpose under heaven.”  And that the witness of churches to the faith that formed them (and that will always inspire them) molds itself to the various needs and conditions of all the Susans and Jeffs of the world.

Susan and I parted as friends in Christ that afternoon. I don’t recall that she ever came back to the house, though. She did  go back to her home church one Sunday morning. It was Pentecost Sunday, and she slipped into the chair next to me as worship began. But that’s another story, one I told in a sermon from some years back. Maybe that will be my next entry.

Susan must have been among the first teenagers to frequent the Spanish Castle Youth Center. A slight build, long brown hair, the scruffy look that seemed the uniform of the last year of the decade of the 60s. By that I mean her clothes. Many of the girls wore tight-fitting jeans with that well-worn look: frays and tears and holes in the knees. On top, a t-shirt, bearing music or message logos or just tie-dyed, and that was often covered by an old jacket, even something Army surplus…strange as that was in the anti-war days. Susan fit right in with most of the other girls in the house in those early days.

I can’t picture her without a cigarette in hand. And it was easy to suspect that some drugs were in her system. Pot, to be sure. I also suspect she was sexually active, but what was true and what was rumor was hard to figure out. If some of those kids weren’t sexually active, they’d just as soon want you and everyone else to think they were

Susan was among the serious thinkers who dropped in to the Castle almost every day it was open. We had our share of guys who just wanted to play pool, and girls who just lounged in over-stuffed chairs and talked about their social lives. But there was this core, this smaller group of teenagers who enjoyed discussing politics, rock music, the proposed Constitutional Amendment that would lower the voting age to 18, and, of course, the Viet Nam war. Some opened up about themselves, too, moving from the “issues” of the day, to the “issues” they faced at home or school. Susan and I talked often in one of the upstairs rooms, distant from the hoots and taunts that came from the pool table downstairs, and insulated from the music (AM rock in its last days) that poured from the big radio down there.

I liked having her around for many reasons. First, she was likeable. Second, I trusted her. When she was around, she was a positive role model for some of the other kids. She knew what could get the house in trouble with the neighborhood, and I think, looking back, that she kept the place in order, so to speak. Also, she liked to just sit down and talk. I don’t recall any deep agenda; but conversation came easy, and those one-on-one relationships were why I was growing to appreciate being part of that drop-in center experiment.

Eventually, Susan disappeared.

I guess she had been gone maybe a year or more before she surprised me with a visit one afternoon. There were a lot of teenagers who were part of that Spanish Castle community;  hundreds. Some were Friday night troublemakers, loud and drunk, stopping by to see who was there, and who wanted to go out for some fun. We never knew their names, even though there were times we wanted  to. To report them to somebody. but there was also the inner circle of teenagers who served on the youth council, who came to discussion groups and did art projects. Eventually there were even prayer meetings once the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s arrived. Some of us adults who guided the place and loved its youth leaders knew their names, their stories, their needs, and their gifts. But there were so many. And when Susan stopped coming, after a couple of weeks, we didn’t notice anymore. I did miss her, but only for a while, and then there were other Susans, Roberts, Steves, and Kathy’s.

 Later…she reappeared at the front door of the Spanish Castle, and we were both glad I happened to be there when she did.  The after-school hours were far more quiet than the raucous Friday nights when the Castle was like a big house party. So, with only a handful of other kids in the place, Susan and I found our way to the familiar sofa upstairs, and I asked her, “So, what’s happening with you these days.”

“I’ve found the Lord,” she said.

My first thought was that she was kidding around with something I took to be quite serious and personal. It might be overstating it, but I, for a split moment, felt, well, mocked.  “Really.”  That’s all I said, but it’s important to know how I said it.  It wasn’t a question, like “Really?”  It wasn’t an exclamation, like, “Really!!”  The word just lay there, without feeling, without curiosity or joy. In other words, “I don’t believe a word you’re saying, and I’m disappointed that you’d walk back into this place and joke around after being gone for so long.”

The thing is, she was serious. And she was different.

More about Susan in my next blog.

Jeff Kellam, Spanish Castle Youth Director, 1969

“The Spanish Castle” youth center was a ministry.

But the role of faith was so low key, few people outside the sponsoring churches knew it was a ministry. That included the kids who frequented the place. At the outset, the adults who framed the concept (and who convinced local congregations to fund the project forty years ago)  made the decision to play down the religious aspect of the after school drop-in center. They were fearful that if local teenagers thought the house was somehow “pushing religion,” they’d stay away. The whole purpose of the Castle was to offer a safe gathering place for teens who weren’t particularly involved in school, church, or community groups.

The adult leadership team realized that there was what we called a “counter-culture” class of youth who didn’t necessarily want a highly structured program  or any adult-imposed expectations. Basically the community of youth who would come to the Spanish Castle would simply want a place without “hassles.” The schedule of the house was a) a time when the doors opened, and b) a time when the doors closed. Some kids came to just sit there alone, while others wanted to play pool. Some listened to music or played it. I or another adult would be there to simply keep the place “legal”  (looking out for drug use inside, or more likely on the grounds), or more constructively, to be a listener, a counselor, or an older friend. (As I look back on this and wonder where those kids are today, I realize that I was only 8 -10 years older than most of them. Today, the first “Castle kids” are no doubt thinking about their own retirements!)

A few of the teenagers showed up when the doors were unlocked and stayed almost until the house closed a few hours later. Other kids dropped by to see who was there, and left within minutes. A few of those teens stayed connected to that loose community for all five years it was open, but most showed up infrequently, or came for a few months and then disappeared.

No one found religious tracts in the place. But I did pin up some subtle posters published by Argus Press. [“Bloom where you are planted.” “Not to decide is to decide.” That kind of thing.] No one got preached to. But it was no secret that I was a minister. I doubt anyone was even invited to church. Yet the house was there because church people cared about the welfare of these teenagers, and about the whole young  person: body, mind, and spirit. People of faith were determined to provide a positive, even enriching experience to kids who might otherwise have hung out on the proverbial street corner or hid in the (equally proverbial) shadows. Building a caring community seemed to us to be the main motivation of the day. Not wanting to turn them off, we didn’t bring up religion as an agenda item when kids came by, but if they  brought it up…we were ready to witness to faith’s comfort, hope, justice, and healing power.

As the Castle community grew and matured in its focus, seeds of faith began to take root and bear fruit. For example, within a couple of years of our opening (in 1969), the youth culture of the U.S. had found Jesus. We called it the “Jesus Movement” back then, with Jesus music in the Top 40, and parachurch organizations and prayer groups springing up from the grass roots (as opposed to being initiated by established churches). At the Spanish Castle, our once-firmly counter-culture kids were coming in with both religious questions and spiritual experiences  they wanted help in understanding. So we had a weekly after-hours discussion group, held in one of the “upper rooms” of the house. And a couple of our musically-inclined kids began singing “folk mass” genre Christian songs. In addition, I found myself having more one-on-one conversations with kids about God, Jesus, prayer, various “signs” they had heard about from other kids, and their own spiritual journeys…or the ones they wish they had.

I want to write about a girl named Susan in my next entry. Forty years have gone by since we met, but I remember one particular conversation as if it were just days ago. Watch this space…

 The old white house on McRae Road in the Bon Air area of south Richmond, Va. had been someone’s home for generations. Eventually it had been purchased by St. Michael’s Episcopal Church and converted into a school building, a kindergarten run by the church as part of the St. Michael’s School. When the church later built a larger, more modern school building, the parish made the house available to an ecumenical youth ministry for use as a drop-in center for neighborhood teenagers. It was spring, 1969.

The kids cleaned the place up, repaired walls, painted the interior, and solicited furnishings from the churches that had joined in support of this new venture. I was a seminary senior, about to graduate, and ready for ordination to two part-time positions in “youth work.” As noted previously here, I was already producing a local youth-oriented rock radio program on Sunday nights. And now I was to be the only “paid employee” at this youth center. Naive young pastor-to-be among some youth who knew more about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll than I did.

The kids set the rules and the board set the hours. Tuesday through Thursdays, from 4 to 7. Friday nights from 4 to 11 p.m. Next, everyone involved knew we needed a name for the place.

Mike, one of the founding teenagers, suggested the name “Spanish Castle.”  No one offered an alternative that I remember. It seemed just a given. Spanish Castle. An adult on the BASY, Inc board asked what that meant. Mike explained that it was from the title of a recent Jimi Hendrix album, “Spanish Castle Magic.” That was that.

The sign was lettered in a kind of bold psychedelic art style, and the basic house rules were added in smaller letters, and for the next three or four years, as neighbors drove by the house, everyone knew its name. And eventually, its reputation…though not everyone had the same opinion about  that reputation.

Almost immediately there was some dissension in the ranks. The very first teenagers who had envisioned the idea of a place to go after school during the week, and maybe on Friday and Saturday nights too, had live music in mind. They had hoped for a place to rehearse and jam during the week and then to perform on a weekend night. The old house has seemed well-suited for that. The original large living room was separated from the equally roomy dining room by pocket doors. When those doors opened, the two rooms became one very good sized place to set up a band, with plenty of room for an audience.

Mike and his friends were excited about the possibilities. In the first days the house was opened, the drums, guitars, and amps were in place and Mike and his band were jamming.

In the meantime, furniture was arriving from people’s attics, dens, and basements. Old stuffed chairs and sofas, lamps, a big old stereo (radio and phono combo), and a Coke machine began to fill the two floors. There was a corner room on the second floor that I had my eye on for an office. It had windows on three sides, an old fireplace, and plenty of room for the desk and filing cabinet the church had left behind for us, plus the two large  odd-looking white plastic chairs that seemed like something out of  “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Perfect space for hanging out with the kids, and for the counseling I knew I would be providing.

I arrived on one of the first days the kids were painting and Steve and Dori greeted me. “You’ve gotta see this!” Steve said excitedly. I followed him upstairs and found that my “office” had been designated “The Black-light Room.”  They had painted the whole room black, with some day-glow art on the walls, and in the fluorescent fixture overhead…a black-light that created a “passion pit” you wouldn’t believe. Over the fireplace Steve the artist  had painted an unmistakable day-glow orange phallic symbol, exploding  in fireworks. In the interest of “letting be,” that is, artistic and youth freedom, the adults pretended they didn’t notice. (The black room would, over the next several months, prompt an additional “rule” in the house: everyone in that room was to be sitting up… no lying down, or the black light goes!  The rule had to be repeated countless times each day.)

My office desk was placed unceremoniously in the hall of the back stairway. But I wasn’t to spend much time there anyway.

I regret to this day the arrival of a gift from local Presbyterians. A church had closed in downtown Richmond and in the fellowship area of that old building there was a massive pool table. When that church’s own recreation center had been shuttered, neighborhood youth had been breaking into the building to play pool, and the Presbytery wanted to dispose of the table in the interest of safety. Did the Spanish Castle want it? I just can’t remember the process that led to our saying yes. I would hope that the youth voted on it.

The problem was that the table had a slate surface and its weight meant it had to go on the first floor of our house. And it had to go in one of the bigger rooms to have space for actually playing pool with long cue sticks. It had to go where the “audience” would have sat listening  to the bands. Mike and his buddies were not pleased with the decision. When the pool table arrived, the musicians felt displaced and disregarded. They soon left. The irony, of course, was that it was Mike and his friends for whom the youth center was created. It was Mike’s mother who had initiated the planning and who gathered the troops to find the building, raise the funds, and draw the kids together. Mike and his friends took their instruments and amps back to someone’s house and rarely frequented the youth center again.  (That said, they did play for at least two Spanish Castle fund-raisers. And Mike’s talent with his guitar, wherever  he practiced paid off. Today, a music professor,  he teaches guitar at a large university in Virginia.)

Next, the role of the faith community in setting up this youth center. And some controversy.

When Bon Air Southampton Youth, Inc. asked me to be their “youth adviser” for the neighborhood youth center on Richmond’s southside, I accepted the position with no little hesitation. I had very limited youth ministry experience. Sure, my weekly radio program was somewhat of a hit, and I had many invitations to speak at local churches. And I had done a youth ministry internship the previous summer in Dunedin, Florida, working with children and teens in a daily setting. But I had no formal “training.”

And the kids who sat across the room from me on that first night in the old house weren’t church teens. To me they were a little scary. Except for those late-1960s sideburns, I was clean-cut. They had hair, lots of it. I was dressed in khakis and a dress shirt, though I had the sense not to wear a tie that night. They were dressed in the standard uniform of hippies: tie-dyed tops, worn-out jeans…a raggedy band to be sure. I was playing top 40 on the radio, and they were Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock (before Woodstock!). I had never had a cigarette, and their pockets bulged with Marlboro packs. Need I go on? Culture/counter-culture. Of course, we sat opposite one another.

The BASY, Inc. adult leadership, made up of some parents and church folk, introduced me and the kids introduced themselves: Mike, Liz, Susan, Robert, Eddy, John, Mary Ellen, Eric, another John, another Eric…  I tried my best to look confident, and friendly, and open to their desire to turn the old house into a place for recreation, music, conversation, and just hanging out. A place with very limited rules and very little adult intrusion.

As I’ve written previously, there were to be three “boards” for this place: adult advisers, youth professionals, and the youth themselves. Wisely, the adults asked the youth to set their own rules for the management and conduct of the center. Plus, we needed a name for the place. BASY Inc. didn’t have a ring to it. After hearing from the teenagers what dreams they had for the house, I sat with them as they took on their main assignment: the rules. They would paint a sign listing the rules and hang the sign on the front porch of the Overby House (as it had been known since it anchored a long-gone farmstead). Though four decades have passed, I do remember the rules well: 1) Minimum age:14 (no upper limit was set, thinking that those “too old” would know it); 2) smoking in designated areas only (it was, after all, an old house, so smoking was limited to one room on each floor); 3) no alcohol or other drugs allowed on the premises.  (The “other drugs” reference was their message to parents: if you drink, you use drugs.)

That was it. Three rules. The hours may have been posted on that big sign, but they would change often in the coming months. Later more than one adult adviser (they weren’t called chaperons!) asked about adding a rule about “language,” but the kids wanted freedom of expression in their own house. We would eventually tell adult volunteers that if they couldn’t stand the language, maybe they would be happier volunteering elsewhere. (Because the house was on church property and supported largely by neighborhood churches, the teens did self-censor “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”)

One more thing for this entry. How I was won over. Admittedly, I may not have been the best choice for this youth adviser job. That first night my feeling was kin to that of a lamb being led to the slaughter. I also admit that I questioned whether these teenagers had what it took to run their own house, to do the work that had to be done to convert a building  from one purpose to another, that is, to clean it up, fix cracked plaster, Spackle, sand, and paint, and  move furniture in. The next Saturday morning, they won me over with their enthusiastic work ethic. I think it was watching the kids up on ladders scooping out years of yukky debris from the roof gutters that convinced me that these kids wanted this place to happen.

With adult help, they learned how to apply Spackle to gaping cracks in old walls. They painted, cleaned bathrooms, and hauled furnishings. They worked hard. For hippies. (I’m smiling as I write that.) A major benefit of having the kids do the work on the walls: if you’ve fixed the cracks  and applied the paint yourself, you won’t tolerate graffiti or vandalism by other youth who lack ownership in the work.

Next: how the place got its name. It looked nothing like a “Spanish Castle.”