[I have no doubt this story has been told elsewhere in one of my WordPress sites. If you compare this account with the others and find some factual deviations, give me a break. This happened a long time ago.]

When I was Associate Pastor at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield County, Va., I “chaperoned” a couple of youth group “lock-ins,” those overnight in-church retreats designed to…well, I don’t know what they were designed to do. All I know is that they were fun, for the most part, and included movies, games, pizza, maybe some sort of “devotional,” and, the highlight: staying up all night… or not.

A few years before I was called to Bon Air, I served as the Pastor to/for Youth at the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, which, unlike suburban Bon Air, was on the edge of the downtown area of Richmond. When we were planning some summer youth activities, the idea of a lock-in came up. Always looking for a more creative edge to routine programming, I had this idea: why not lock ourselves out of the church? And engage the city in the middle of the night. Meet some of the night people who work while the rest of us sleep.

After getting positive feedback from the 8-10 teens and their parents, I brainstormed where we might go for the night, and made some phone calls. I came up with a schedule, arranged some transportation, and also called the local police precinct. “We’re going to be out on the streets this coming Friday night, and wonder if you might just keep an eye out for us. You know, drive by every once in awhile to make sure we’re safe.”

“Can’t do that,” the officer replied. “We have established patrols, and we can’t provide personal protection services for every group that happens by at night.”

I understood completely. But was nonetheless a bit disappointed. Now I — captial I,  bold, italicized, and, if WordPress would allow it, underlined — I would be responsible for 10 kids along dark city streets at 3 a.m. Still, let’s do this!

The teenagers arrived at the church early Friday night. We gathered the obligatory snacks, munched on a few, and discussed what lay ahead. I offered a brief devotional to set the theme, probably something from the Psalms: 42:8 or 63:6? We might have used the stories of the boy Samuel hearing a voice in the night, or Nicodemus visiting Jesus under the cloak of darkness (Nic at night). Then, we left the building.

First stop: putting the morning newspaper to bed. We drove a few blocks to the downtown building housing the Richmond Times Dispatch, saw the last of the photos being readied for the early edition, saw pages being composed, watched as the giant presses rolled, and, with some helpful commentary along the way by a reporter I knew (was it Ed Briggs, the religion writer?), we saw the first papers bundled up and loaded on trucks.

While we were downtown, we next visited the night chaplain at what was then called the Medical College of Virginia Hospital. The chaplain spoke of having been in an auto accident on the way to take the chaplain’s position at MCV, and how first being a patient there had been unique preparation for the compassionate service a chaplain rendered professionally. We would like to have toured the hospital halls in the quiet of that night, but it would have been inappropriate for our “gang” to invade the space of medical personnel on the night shift. It was enough to hear the chaplain’s moving stories about serving the sick and vulnerable, literally stories of life and death.

By now, it was certainly well after 1 a.m. We went back to the church’s neighborhood, though not back to the church. Instead, a few blocks away, I had made arrangements to visit the local police precinct. It was hardy “Hill Street Blues,” a popular gritty TV show on the air at the time. This was little more than a few desks, some lockers, and a small lock-up, where someone could be held before being taken downtown to the larger city jail. A bit of drama was about to unfold here.

As we entered the precinct building, the officer on duty looked a little surprised. Must have been odd to see eight or ten teenagers and two adults burst noisily into the premises. I introduced myself and said I had hoped that he would have gotten the word about our coming. “Yes, we knew about it,” he said. “But there’s a problem that’s come up, Reverend.” (I hate it when people call me that, but that wasn’t the problem.) “We have a curfew here, and people your age, ” he said pointing to the teens, “aren’t supposed to be out past curfew like this. I’m sorry we didn’t mention this before, but we didn’t realize how late you all were going to be out. Reverend, you’re in charge of these kids?”

“Um, yes.”

“Well, I’m sorry to tell you that we are going to have to hold you here, under arrest for contributing to the delinquency of minors.” It took a split second to process this. My first thought was that this was going to screw up the night’s schedule. One of the kids admitted later that his first thought was, “Man, I’m gonna be in big trouble calling my father to come pick me up at one in the morning!”

Of course, the welcoming officer then broke into a smile and said he was just kidding. I knew he was, but there was that one or two (or five) seconds when I think he had me. As he walked us through the first floor of the little building they called home, he was apologetic about the tame look of the place. “Mostly we do paperwork,” he said. “We spend a lot of time filing reports.”  With only two officers on the premises, there wasn’t much to see, so we moved on, but thanked them for taking the time to talk with us.

At that time, FM rock was taking over the radio dial, but when I couldn’t get permission to take the group to the station most of them listened to, I called the once mighty AM rocker, WLEE, and they were glad to welcome us. The night time deejay worked the station alone, playing the hits, answering the phone (taking requests), and making the whole place sound as if it were an exciting hub of activity. I suggested that the two cars that drove us to Richmond’s West End tune into the station on the way. When we got to the parking lot, I went to the door and pushed what looked like a doorbell. A light flashed in the studio, and over the intercom the deejay told us he was on his way to the door. Most of the kids had never seen a real radio station, nor talked with a deejay face-to-face, so there were lots of questions about why he played the music he did (there was a pre-selected rotation; not his choices), what is was like to be there all night (he was rarely lonely…liked the all-night shift…enjoyed most of the calls, but had endure some abuse now and then), and why he played “8-tracks” (the cartridges only looked like 8-tracks; putting each song on tape meant preserving them from scratches and there was no need to cue them up).

Later when debriefing the radio station visit, we talked about why anyone would call a radio station in the middle of the night, just to talk to a stranger.

Our last stop that night was an early breakfast at a White Tower Restaurant. It may have 4:30 a.m. by now, or a little later. Things were running more quickly than I had planned, but we were all hungry, so a White Tower breakfast it was! And I couldn’t have planned the next thing. As we took our seats in the restaurant (a term I use lightly here), there was a young man, early 20s, sitting at the counter reading a Bible. Here was a genuine “night person” sitting alone, reading his Bible. I confess to having missed a wonderful opportunity: I wish I had respectfully interrupted his reading to conduct a little interview, have a conversation with the teens listening in, asking him to tell us what brought him to that place at that time with that Book. At the same time, it was probably more respectful to simply let him be, and not exploit his presence in our youth group’s all-night sojourn in the city.

By 5:30 a.m or so, we were back at church. We gathered in the video room and watched a VHS tape of an episode from the original “Star Trek” program. (It might have been the one titled “Bread and Circuses.”) Some of the teens dozed. Some snacked. Two or three took off to explore the huge creaky church building, somewhat against my better judgment. But I trusted them. It turns out that they had watched the sunrise, and (shudder) I think it might have been from the church roof! Could that be?! Or, is my memory playing tricks? Anyway, they said it was a beautiful sight. And no one got hurt.

We finished the “lock-out” with a devotional to wrap up, sharing impressions, thinking again how even in the loneliest or longest nights, God is with us. Light always comes. And joy comes in the morning, as the psalm promises.

Though I never replicated that lock-out event in another location, with some contacts and some planning, it makes a lot more sense, I think, than simply staying up all night in a church basement until, zombie-like, the bleary-eyed kids roll up sleeping bags and go home Saturday morning to sleep it off. Even if you risk breaking curfew and spending the night in the lock-up.

Next: answering the question, “So, what are we going to be…the gay church?”