“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…