youth ministry


DSC07425{Holy Week…2017…a Tuesday without much going on, and a mug that fits just right.}

There’s not much going on with this mug. It holds no printed message, no child’s art, nor any design that says, “Hey, write about this!” This mug isn’t even drunk from. It’s purely decorative, occupying a shelf in the kitchen. Where did we get it? Isn’t there some story to tell?

I turned it over, and etched into the bottom of the mug it says, “Williamsburg.” And it’s in the trademarked logo script. So that makes it official. And probably expensive, at least compared to most of the other mugs in our kitchen. Nice design. Love the color. But what does it prompt me to write about as this forty day retreat into the wilderness of my imagination heads toward a conclusion?

Unlike some of the other mugs we use for daily coffee and tea, this one is real pottery. I suspect it’s handmade, out of clay. Earthenware, we call it. Imagined, then shaped and molded, formed into a useful vessel, and then painted to make it more attractive. I’ve never been to a pottery class, and I won’t try to write about the creative process that puts hands to wet clay, tactile art, sensuous touch, massaging earthly elements into some ceramic shape, artistic or practical or both. I’m mostly interested in the clay.

When I was in youth ministry, so long ago that those teens may be grandparents now for all I know, I led a retreat at a lovely place in Virginia called Shrinemont. Located in the northern reaches of the Jefferson National Forest, the conference center is operated by the Episcopal Church. The weekend focus was the gift of music, and one activity I planned centered on using art materials to interpret some of the songs we were listening to. One teenaged guy used pipe cleaners to sculpt a rock band! I had bought a lot of modeling clay, the kind that was non-drying, non-hardening, so it could be reused after our event.

Obviously, it wasn’t pure clay from the earth. More like some plastic goo from a factory. But it met our needs for the weekend. I really got into that exercise. As is the case with some sculptors some of the time, I had no preconceived plan. I just grabbed a big hunk, and worked it. Yes, it was therapeutic, I’m sure. All the tension and anxiety of programming and leading a retreat for over a hundred teens dispersed as I squeezed and pressed, and gouged and shaped that ball of clay into…a head. Eventually, an old man’s head. Long face, deep set eyes, a weary look, a few lines here and there.

It was no masterpiece, but I liked it. Then I saw that there was a bit more clay left. I rolled it into a ball, and sculpted the head of an infant, to contrast with the old guy. When the retreat ended on Sunday afternoon, I packed up the art supplies and saw my creation(s) there, waiting for me to mash them into a shapeless lump, art recycled. I had told everyone that they could keep what they had fashioned if they wanted to. So, I listened to myself and carefully packed the old man and the infant in a box to take home.

Those clay heads remained in my office for years, and the manufacturer was right: the clay never hardened. When it was time to move out of state to new work, I made the hard decision to finally blend the two lumps together, and leave them for someone else to play with. That ended my sculpting days.

Thankfully, some art is permanent, as lasting as anything on this planet Earth can be. The paintings of the masters, massive cathedrals, The Pieta, castle tapestries, and great-grandma’s quilts. The words of published authors and the music of whatever is considered “classic” these days — words and music live on, for generations. And carpentry, too. The old family hutch and the hand-carved pulpit.

But some art is temporary, too. And intentionally so. At a Montreat, NC, conference a few years ago, huge paper banners, perhaps 20 feet long, decorated the cavernous auditorium. The designs were religious symbols, intricately cut into sturdy paper, letting the light shine through the patterns with stunning effect. The uninitiated wondered aloud how the artist would roll up the huge sheets without damaging the delicate creations. But for those who were present when the plain sheets were first unrolled to be scissored into art, the artist had made it clear: this was to be tempoarary art, inspiring only for a few days, much like sand art on a beach, ice sculpture in winter, or a sand mandala of Tibeten monks. It was a celebration of the temporary.

As were my plastic clay figures.

[It just occurred to me that if there were any “art” to my years of producing music-oriented radio programs, with sometimes, not always, thoughtfully-written scripts, that was temporary too. You hope to write creatively, join the script to popular music, voice it with sensitivity, edit the tape, and then it all airs. Within a few minutes, the tape could have been erased, and the effort begun for the following broadcast. And before we ministers could preserve our sermon manuscripts on the church website, blog them, or at least print them out for the reading public in our pews, what we preached was surely a temporary art too. OK, many of my radio programs and maybe most of my sermons didn’t achieve the status of art, per se. This paragraph was inserted for only illustrative purposes.]

But back to clay. It’s a cousin to the dust and ashes of Mother Earth. It’s related to the soil that brings forth crops, and to the mud we track in on a rainy day. It’s red there, and black here, and gray, too. The earliest use of clay? Pottery. We date civilizations by the remaining shards we dig up. But clay was used for bricks, too, to build structures that sheltered and memorialized. Archeological discoveries included toys and idols made of clay. And, of course, clay tablets preserved ancient writings.

When Jesus gathered his disciples together in an upper room to break bread with them one last time, that bread sat on clay plates. There was some gravy in a clay bowl. And wine in pitcher and chalice of clay. Maybe today we would consider doing pottery, bread making and wine making as “arts,” but in Jesus’ time, it was just the customary stuff of a meal shared with friends. Except when it was a ritual meal, like Passover. Except when it was transformed into what has become a sacramental meal, when Jesus took bread and wine and said, “Remember me.”

There on the table was the clay-ware. Nothing sacramental about it, but the same elements as gave life to the grain and the grapes and to humanity, for in the second of the creation myths in Genesis we read, “The Lord God made man from the dust of the earth.”

On Maundy Thursday, look for that day’s “mug” to look more like a chalice, clay pottery with sacred meaning.

Until then, remember that all the ground we walk on is holy.

 

 

{Another mug for another day in Lent 2017. If you’ve landed here without knoDSC07382wing the rationale for this odd series of reflections, you are on your own.}

When I contributed a modest financial gift to the performance space created in an old firehouse, I got this mug as a thank you. The Schorr Family contributed a huge gift and got the place named after them. I’m happy with the mug.

I wind up at the Firehouse Stage a couple of times a month on average. There are jazz jams, comedy and magic shows, concerts, and plays, all in a fairly intimate space, with the audience at tables where wine and cheese, coffee and Cokes, and popcorn keep stomachs from growling during the shows.

Across the parking lot from the old firehouse is the hulking Goodwill Theatre building, a long-dark auditorium built in 1920 by a generous local shoe magnate George F. Johnson. His thousands of shoe workers enjoyed George F.’s parks, carousels, health services, even a golf course, as well as the massive Goodwill Theatre with its vaudeville acts and concerts. Through its years, the venue became a commercially-owned movie house renamed the Enjoy Theatre (1932), at first promising family-friendly films, but in its final days relying on X-rated movies to sell tickets. Closed now for decades, the building is slated for renewal, not the urban kind that tears down, but the artistic kind that restores or renovates for new purposes. Until that happens, the Firehouse Stage serves as a sign of both promise and commitment.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that these Lenten reflections on coffee mugs are lodged in my blog entitled “Peace, Grace, and Jazz.” As a fan of all three, I do write about jazz now and then, and rarely miss the jams that bring together local (and sometimes regional) jazz musicians. Most of these performers are professionals, some local instrumental music teachers in schools, others having toured with big bands or well-known jazz artists. A piano-bass-drums trio might play a ballad, and then be joined by a vocalist and sax player, and then just about every musician in the house might join in a spontaneous big band blast. I love it all. And I fantasize. I admit it. I think, what a kick it would be to sing with that band!

But I am not a singer. I’m not a musician. My only contribution to these jams is buying a $10 ticket, nursing a Coke, tapping my feet, and applauding the performers. It’s way too late in my life for regrets, but I do lament not sticking with those junior high trombone lessons. I didn’t try very hard to master the instrument back then. I have been plagued with a serious malady since childhood: a lack of self-discipline. Maybe it would have worked out better if I had some musical aptitude to begin with. Apparently it’s not genetic. My Dad was a drummer in high school, and my Mom played sax. Mom’s mother played piano. Me? Not one of my gifts.

I’ve sung in choirs, and had a rather decent, at least passable, bass voice. But it was best that I blend in and not stand out. Probably appropriate for an introvert anyway, right? Performance is just not my thing. At Firehouse jazz jams or anywhere else. I can wish it were otherwise, but as they say, “If wishes were horses…”

Still, as a pastor-preacher certainly I was a performer of sorts. I played a part, enacted a role, each Sunday there in the pulpit. “Preaching” is not natural, you know. The script we follow is, one would hope, a well-written sermon,* and in seminary we learned to “deliver” that message with some degree of drama, some flare, emotion, sensitivity to the text, and empathy with our listeners. Droning on as if we were reading the now-proverbial phonebook would be unfaithful to the call to effectively articulate the power of the Gospel. If this is Good News we preach, and we whole-heartedly believe it is, then the use of voice, gesture, facial expression, and even that dramatic “beat” (pause) contribute to the next step in the Sunday morning play: moving the congregation to become performers!

The strength of the church’s mission is in the performance of those who act out the love they proclaim with their lips, the compassion they hold in their hearts. There is no guarantee that anyone will applaud their actions, or otherwise reward them. But if we treat love as the verb it is, and if we act with grace, and if the music of our lives is set to the rhythm of God’s heart, certainly the performing of acts of peace and justice will make the world’s stage a better venue for our life together.

Many years ago, somewhere in a Pennsylvania city, I happened on a troupe of actors and musicians who were performing in a small park connected with a shopping mall. There they were, probably scheduled but unannounced, doing an extended skit about how time rules our lives. The production was obviously well-rehearsed, and designed for an open public space, where passersby might stop by and watch for awhile. Some folks stayed for the duration, while others, perhaps more ruled by time, took notice but hurried on. I was impressed by the singing voices and the acting chops of these thespians, as well as their willingness to engage their audience in conversation after the last applause had died down.

Perhaps these days we would call what that troupe did a “flash mob.” I prefer “street theater.” It may sound new, but it’s old hat for the Church. In the Middle Ages, this was known as vernacular drama. Villagers saw miracle plays, morality plays, and mystery plays. That Pennsylvania cast was part of a very long, though interrupted, tradition: teachable moments or inspiring stories acted out on whatever public stage is available. It grabs peoples’ attention. They then tell someone else about the experience, and the word spreads. Maybe it even becomes a “thing” going viral in the Internet. And what fun for a church’s youth group. Or, an intergenerational troupe. As long as they’re not introverts. Maybe they’d be the writers.

I’d better end this now. I have to brush up on the lyrics to “Bim Bam Baby,” in case they call me up to sing at the next Firehouse Stage Jazz Jam.


*I wrote that line recognizing that not every sermon is written out, word for word. I’m a better communicator when the Spirit moves me to write rather than leaving me to ad lib.

{After a Sabbath break, Lent continues and we hit day number 11 and therefore the 11th mug from the Kellam kitchen cupboard. It’s a theme; that’s all I can say at this point.}

One would think that our cupboards would be filled with church mugs. My wife DSC07318.jpgJoan is a retired church musician and I am a retired pastor, so, yes, we have our share of mugs from the churches we’ve served. We have two of these from Bon Air Presbyterian Church (BAPC) in Richmond, Virginia. It’s a very special church to me, and to our family as well.

My first year in seminary, as part of a “Work of the Ministry” practicum, I was assigned to “shadow” the pastor Richard Perkins as he made pastoral calls, led committee meetings, and prepared for teaching and preaching. The church was (still is) a contemporary structure, and at that time the sanctuary was really an all-purpose room that served as dining room, recreation area (I recall volleyball and square dancing), and Sunday worship area. Folding chairs were set up, put away, set up, and put away…over and over. But it was a stewardship of space that made sense then, and I believe it still does. The rationale then still applies: why spend a million dollars on a room permanently dedicated to use as a worship center only a handful of hours a week?

The then-modern sanctuary with folding chairs didn’t lack a suitable feel for worship when we gathered on Sunday mornings, and using that same reconfigured space for fellowship and education made financial sense.

In my short time with Rev. Perkins I did not get to know him well, but perceived that he was dedicated to social justice and that the church took mission outreach seriously. Liberally, one might say.

Only a couple of years later, as a recently ordained minister, I would get to know the church more intimately. I was called to serve an ecumenical, interracial youth center as its “youth director.” The “Spanish Castle” counted among its strongest supporters the Bon Air Church. A Bon Air parent had suggested the need for such a neighborhood gathering place for teens, church members served on the Castle board, and its pastors rallied its cause when various controversies  arose (it was the 1960s after all).

And I found a church home there.

By the time the youth center closed a few years later, while Joan served as musician at another church, I took our kids to Bon Air. Our son was baptized there, and thanks to the moveable chairs in the sanctuary, the font was moved into a central position in the midst of the people. Eventually our two children went to the church’s preschool, then Sunday School, and youth group. They were confirmed there. I was involved with the youth group, and co-taught the senior high class on Sunday mornings. Joan was elected an elder. And the Associate Pastor Andy Sale led me and several youth and adults on a five day Appalachian trail hike.

I’ve titled today’s reflection “Mission.” Mission meant youth ministry, a peace group, building at least one (maybe more) Habitat for Humanity home on its own; supporting a halfway house for recovering alcoholics, welcoming Richmond’s homeless for a week each year, and helping found an ecumenical agency that unites surrounding churches in providing emergency help for people in need. That’s the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The list goes on. Still.

While I did work professionally in another church during part of the 22 years we lived in the Bon Air suburbs, I was finally called to serve BAPC as Associate Pastor (halftime) and focused my work in liturgy and congregational care. This church was our family’s spiritual home for so many years, a congregation filled with glorious music, nurturing educational programs, courageous mission outreach, faithful preaching, creative worship, and dear, dear friends.

It’s Lent, and I must mention one more Bon Air Presbyterian offering while I was there. Joan and I grew professionally and personally in countless ways from our denomination’s Music and Worship Conferences in Montreat, NC. One year the focus was on the Book of Common Worship, and that included a section on Daily Prayer. One Lenten season I suggested that the church offer a service of Morning Prayer for forty days. Assuming this would be a small group able and willing to meet each morning at 7:30, we gathered in the intimate space of the choir loft in a circle of, yes, folding chairs. We sang, read scripture, prayed, and sat in silence each morning. I have to admit that by the time Lent ended I was more than ready to let that daily discipline go, despite its “success” and how our participants had grown together! But forty days!

Nonetheless, or all the more, we repeated that Lenten discipline two or three more years before Joan and I moved from Virginia to Vermont.

We visited the Bon Air Church several months ago. The all-purpose room sanctuary is now completely renovated and dedicated to worship space. No more volleyball or square dancing. There’s a gym now for that. But there are still moveable chairs, new ones far more comfortable than the clanky ones that folded. And mission is still at the heart of the church’s ministry. Numbers are down, partly because the church helped plant new congregations deeper into the Richmond suburbs, but also because the “mainline” churches aren’t as mainline as before.

Still, when I pick up this mug for morning coffee (of course, a fair trade brew), I am reminded of the deep meaning of the term “church home,” and I am grateful God led us there and fed us there. We give thanks for all the saints at Bon Air, whether at rest now or still laboring to make the Good News a breath of fresh air for all God’s people!

 

 

When I wrote the first in this series of forty photos from my files, I mentioned that I’d been taking pictures for almost 60 years. Today’s photo, a scan of the original print, may be the oldest one I’ll be posting. Kodak did me the favor of date-stamping the print on the back: “Week of May 24, 1958.” The camera was the Brownie Holiday Flash; the film 127 Kodacolor.IMG

So I took this when I was thirteen. The scene doesn’t look much like this today. You can see that there is that cream-colored wall running the length of the photo, a temporary structure shielding construction work taking place at what was called at the time “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

If memory serves, this is the first picture that I had enlarged into an 8 X 10 print. I was very proud of it, though I regretted that someone’s hat intruded on the lower corner. Still, it was a perfect blue sky day, I got the soldier right there in the middle, and the two trees provided some symmetry. Since we are looking at a scene from 58 years ago, I don’t remember why I was in Arlington National Cemetery in springtime. My family didn’t travel very often, so here’s my best guess: this was a church youth group trip to Washington, D.C.

What memory hasn’t faithfully recorded and played back, the mind sometimes makes up. For example, I’ve always thought that my earliest memory was that of a younger brother being brought home from the hospital after his birth. I can picture the scene: the room, the blue blanket he was wrapped in — or was it green? — and I am on the floor as my parents come in the door. I’ve been playing, my grandmother (which one?) keeping me company. If this were my first brother, I would have been two and a half years old. If this had been the grand entrance of my second brother, I would have been three and a half.

Sadly, no one can confirm if this memory is true, fairly factual, or if I have, as they say, “manufactured” the scene based on a) things I was told decades ago, or b) what I imagined the scene must have been like. No matter. It is now my memory.

At the Tomb of the Unknowns (as it is called today), we keep alive the memory of those lost in war, those whose remains were never identified. They have no other marker. No names, dates, details. But they are remembered solemnly, and as the crowds view the changing of the guard, there is silence. And should the silence and reverence be broken by some thoughtless nonsense, the reprimand is quick and stern. Nothing must intrude on the gravity of that memorial.

Admittedly, some memories are frivolous and not worth spending much time with. Some are troubling and we wish they could be forgotten. Some are holy. Some are lessons. Some are the stuff of nightmares. Some pop into mind after years have gone by, prompted by an aroma, a glimpse, a name. Some are the only way we can hold on to someone beloved.

When I worked with teenagers on what we referred to as their “confirmation journeys,” one early activity we enjoyed together was sharing the “stepping stones” of our lives. We’d trace the outline of one shoe, cut some paper into the shape of soles, and label those with what we decided were the most significant events (or steps) we had encountered along the way so far. The teens recalled and noted the birth of a younger sibling, moving to a new school, the death of someone close, perhaps an especially significant spiritual encounter or new understanding (that with some prompting). Those were the memories that helped shape who they had become. And we adult leaders would always say, “Remember your baptism!”

Maybe one of those confirmands would remind us, “But I haven’t been baptized yet!”

“Then you, among all your baptized-as-infants friends, will surely remember yours!” The day, the water, the blessing. Good for a lifetime!

The other sacrament among us Reformed Christians has some memory attached to it too. There, carved into the Communion table, are the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The bread, the cup, the memory…the keeping alive of Jesus in our midst.

Lent is as good a time as any to remember who we are, and whose we are. Lest we forget. Lest the un-knowing become our undoing. Or, to put the more attractive and positive spin on it: let us nurture the best memories of our best selves!

 

Once again a sense of humor and a handy camera capture a fun image. We were on this Caribbean cruise, and walking a beach I happened to see the juxtaposition of our ship and that one lifeguard. Click.

Yeah…see, this one guy is responsible for everyone on that ship. I hope he’s paying attention. And not just watching the movie on the giant screen on the top deck. He’s got a lot of souls to keep safe.DSC02755.JPG

It’s a matter of trust. Can you imagine his interview for the job? You’ve got your lifesaving certification, right? Yep. And some experience? Check. We need you to sit up there in that chair and be ready to spring into action if the need arises. Right. One more thing. We’re not just talking about a few swimmers in the water. Oh? No, we’re asking you to watch a ship and be responsible for, maybe, 4500 souls aboard. Oh.

So there he sits. And there’s the ship. Good luck.

I wonder when I might have been entrusted with far more than I was able/willing/prepared to deal with. Now that I think about it: over and over. My family. The teens at the youth center. The churches I served. The committees I chaired.

So, three in my family. Maybe a hundred at the youth center. Largest church? Maybe 600. The committees? Well, it wasn’t just the people around the table but the hundreds, maybe thousands, whose lives may (or may not, truth be told) have been affected by the work we tried to accomplish.

And then there was the radio thing. {For over 20 years I produced and hosted a syndicated radio program called “Celebration Rock.”} I can acknowledge that many listeners were indifferent to the broadcasts I produced and hosted. But others trusted my voice. My thoughts, my words, my ideas, my (gulp) theology. I can’t count the hours, the cities, the reach of the stations…but there must have been a lot of people out there who trusted me to be honest, thoughtful, maybe even prayerful in the message, the gospel, I proclaimed.

In the early days of my ministry, my wife Joan noted that my youth center persona was quite different from my “at home” presence. (And it wasn’t just the odor of the teens’ cigarettes that hung on my clothes when I got back to our smoke-free home.) Did I have to be more “cool” or “hardened” with those teenagers, or what? I don’t think I was trying to be less than genuine, less than sincerely “me” at the center. Both there  and at home, I wanted to be fully trusted. But maybe in different ways?

And on the radio? I listen to my earliest rock DJ voice and I know it wasn’t the real me. I was an actor. When it came to the music, I was trying to sound “with it.” When it came to the religious content, what I hear now in those early tapes is fairly judgmental. Yikes. Yet, over the years, on air I became more “myself,” and for better or worse, the person the listener heard was me. Trust me.

Back to church, for a moment. I remember a favorite sermon of mine where I framed the Christmas story in a conversation with a friend as we hiked part of the Appalachian Trail. I combined a real hike, you see, with a made-up conversation and came up with a story-sermon that I thought was creative, even entertaining, and still spiritually uplifting. As the service came to an end, a teenager asked me some details about the whole experience, and I admitted that I had made it up. For the sake of the sermon. To be creative. And Ann’s response was, “Well, how will I ever know when to trust you again?” That was a wake-up call to a youngish minister in his first pastoral work.

I look again at the guy in the lifeguard chair, and I realize he isn’t even looking at the ship. Hey!

I’ll close by paraphrasing that main thrust of the Christian message about loving God, neighbor, and self. “Trust the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and strength, and trust your neighbor as you trust yourself.”

For me, the first part is easy.

 

For the next couple of days, I want to celebrate mountaintop experiences. Choosing a handful of images for this Lenten discipline of mine, a photo or slide for each day in Lent (2016) from a sixty-year accumulation, is hard when it comes to my scores of mountain views.

From journeys along the Appalachian Trail, to our Alaskan trips, to the Canadian Rockies, and to Lookout Mountain over Montreat…some Matt Matthews on the AT_edited-2.jpgmountains I’ve climbed, some I’ve just framed in my viewfinder. Today, I thought I’d start with this image of my good friend Matt. This hike was so many years ago, I can’t tell you where we were, except it was in the heart of the Blue Ridge in Virginia.  I do remember gently chastising Matt about his “hiking shoes” though. Old sneakers? Really? Turns out, his youthful energy bested my hiking-booted aging body, and he bounded ahead of me up one switchback after another.

Hiking the AT, even for just a day or two, can be both hard work and exhilarating. Climbing can be a challenge, yes, but the views, only hinted at in this picture, make every blister worth it. I’ve climbed with many youth groups (admittedly not recently, mind you) and I always encouraged the teens to spend some quiet time at every summit they reach.

I’d say something like, if a helicopter had flown up here and dropped you off, the view would be exactly the same. But you all struggled your way here, you followed a trail that was sometimes rocky and steep and you wanted to stop and rest, but we had to push you to keep going. You got scratches and blisters and you’re achy and maybe cranky, and your packs seem so much heavier than when we started. But look what you’ve achieved! Just look! No one can appreciate this view like someone who has earned it! So, let’s spend some time here before we head down. Rest awhile. Find your own spot if you want, and say a prayer, marvel at all you can see, respect the mountain and its gifts. Look down into the valley and find the river.

One thing that makes these treks easier is the blazes that guide us along the way. Learning what the various markers mean is simple. Then you just keep your eyes open to them as you go. Now and then, a marked tree has fallen or a blaze has been obscured, but for the most part it’s hard not to find your way if you watch for the guides.

I’m smiling as I remember a “talk” (that’s the quaint word we used back then) by an upper class student in college, a short meditation he was leading at a Christian fellowship meeting. Here it is over fifty years later, and I can still hear George’s voice as he exclaimed over the importance of the “white markers” along hiking trails, and he used them as a metaphor for life’s journey. George urged us to watch for the markers placed by God along our paths in college, in social relationships, and in moral decision-making.

I was pretty impressed by his “talk.” And only decades later did it occur that he may have gotten the idea from some Christian resource for campus fellowship leaders. Still, George’s guidance was useful then and remains so, all these years later.

For one thing, those blazes along the trail were put there by people who had gone before us, and who knew the best way to go. And the blazes marked well-worn paths that had kept others from getting  lost. Further, the markings on trees and rock formations had to be kept fresh, repainted now and then, for future hikers.

I realize as I type this that GPS may make those primitive blazes obsolete. Oh, I hope not. Because there’s a lot to be said for hiking along the trails and looking closely at the rocks and trees and formations and footpaths of nature, not at some damned gizmo’s screen. Keep looking at your phone as you traverse the trail, and you may find yourself tripping over a root, or falling into a deep ravine. To me, the whole point of being on a hike is to appreciate the wonders of nature. And experience the quiet beauty of peaks and valleys.

More about that tomorrow…

 

 

This is a NIMBY story. But first, it was a NIMFY story.

When I was Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Trumansburg, NY, my study looked out on the village’s Main Street. One afternoon, I heard the grating sound of skateboards scraping across the cement front walk between the church’s two buildings. It shouldn’t have bothered me, the sound of teenagers enjoying the handicapped-ramped concrete flight paths outside my window.

But — it did bother me. Mostly it annoyed me because of the damage they did to the metal railings along the ramps. Somehow they were able to skate, become airborne, and leap onto the handrails for a short ride before landing back on terra firma. The Building and Grounds Committee had to keep repainting the railings. Eventually, the committee had a sign made: “No Skateboards.” Maybe the sign mentioned other offenses, too, or maybe a line about liability. I don’t recall. But, there was a sign and the kids outside my window were completely disregarding it.

So, I pretty much chased them away. I wasn’t mean, just firm. These were not “church kids,” so I didn’t know them. Look at the scraped paint, guys. And I must have mentioned the insurance issue too.

A few days later, they were back. I had read in the local weekly that Trumansburg teens looked with envy on the Ithaca skate park, and a couple of others in nearby locales. But they had been rebuffed when approaching local officials about a park of their own.

I went back out to the sidewalk, but took another tone with them this time. No chasing away, no complaining. I meant to be as kind as possible, and I explained the problems again with their using the church’s front yard as a skate park. I knew exactly what they would respond when I asked, “Why don’t you use the local T-burg skate park?”

“There isn’t one!” I knew that. We talked briefly about the efforts the teens had made to get a place of their own. It was a good conversation. I asked their names, and they volunteered that a friend of theirs came to our church. Just then, Mack showed up, their friend and our member. Man, was I glad I had approached these guys the way I did! I’d have really regretted putting on my mean/ugly pastor face and then have Mack walk (or skate) into the situation.

With Mack there, I went even further. “If you guys want to keep the conversation going about a local park, how can I help?” They gave me a couple of names of adult skateboard park advocates, and I promised to follow-up. As they skated away on the village sidewalk, I returned to my study very thankful for the opportunity to build a bridge with the youth who had interrupted my afternoon.

I did make a couple of calls to get caught up on the skate park progress or lack of it. But before anything much happened on that front, tragedy struck. Mack was killed in an auto crash. The whole community was devastated. I was asked to lead the memorial service which was held in the high school auditorium, along with the interim minister who had preceded me at the church. What I remember most about the service was seeing the chalk graffiti on the school sidewalks, messages to Mack and tributes to his friendship.

As the skate park conversations continued, the local youth, parents, and community advocates determined that the park would bear Mack’s name, a fitting memorial to a kid everyone loved. A professional firm brought in drawings and proposed equipment; enthusiasm was growing. The right people were getting involved to make this happen. Fundraisers were helping with present costs and future plans. T-shirts bearing a Mack/Skate logo went on sale. I went to lots of meetings, the only non-parent showing up at many of them. (To clarify: my own adult children were not among the skaters we were supporting.)

Besides securing a major grant, the main goal was now finding a site. That’s when the NIMFY (not in my front yard — the church’s ramps) became the NIMBY problem. Even people who had no objection to the park per se, didn’t want it in their backyard. The school had lots of space, but didn’t want the liability (even though the basketball courts, playing fields, and tennis courts must have had some liability issues). There was a pull-off spot along the road at the edge of the village, but officials thought there were safety concerns about being so close to the road. And there was the green space, maybe an acre+, under the village water tower, but it was right in the middle of a neighborhood, and NIMBY came into play big time. Someone was afraid “those” kids would wind up climbing the water tower. The teenagers scoffed at the very idea. One said, “Well, if there’s no place to skate, maybe climbing the tower would be fun after all.”

(I would have advocated a radical idea — using the church’s back yard — but there clearly wasn’t space enough, nor was the terrain right, with a steep hill leading down to a creek bed.)

I would love to report that the teenagers’ efforts were rewarded, but with my retirement from that church came my move away from town, and I lost touch with the project. I have it on good authority that the park was never built. When I think about how much time and effort and good faith those teenagers put into that idea, especially knowing that, given the timeline for development and construction, they would have “aged out” and gone away to college before it came to fruition– well, it’s a disappointment to say the least. It would have been a good place to skate…in Mack’s memory.

And it sure felt good for our church to have advocated an outdoor recreational space in an age where so many youth are sitting in front of electronic screens…as you and I are doing right now. Kind of makes me want to go take a walk!

Next, in this series of forty Lenten essays on my life as a pastor, my first same-sex wedding. Kind of.

Next Page »