We have gotten our priorities terribly mixed up when shopping malls-modern America's town squares-turn young people out into the streets in order to guarantee a safe shopping environment, as was recently done at Minneapolis' Mall of America. Around the country, young people are seen as urban America's problem rather than part of the solution.
With the government, families, schools, and other institutions failing youth at a critical time in their lives, the current "dis-ease" of our society-as manifested by the prevalence of violence, substance abuse, and hopelessness-should come as no surprise. When so many look toward our future-incarnate in our children-with fear, it's more than a social problem. It's a spiritual issue that the church must grapple with.
Yet it is clear to pastors and church leaders around the country that the church is sorely out of touch with youth on the streets. Rev. Ray Hammond, a co-founder of the Ten Point Coalition, which works with youth-at-risk in Boston, says, "The drug dealers are on the streets every day, but the church hasn't been."
Recently, however, a national, ecumenical response by the religious community has started to make connections with street youth and join with them in finding solutions to some of the very tough dilemmas they face.
"The Things That Make for Peace: The Churches Anti-Violence Network" was started by the late Jean Sindab, director of the economic justice program for the National Council of Churches, and other church leaders as a way for the religious community to support peace efforts among inner-city youth-a process begun in 1993 at the Urban Peace and Justice Summit held in Kansas City. Sindab's energy was so crucial to this effort that during the time of her illness and subsequent death in January 1996, the network was put on hold. In the past year, new life has been breathed into the network by its new coordinator, Gaylord Thomas, director of the Church and Society Board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The network has made a commitment to involving young people in every aspect of its work, and has entered into a supportive relationship with five key urban peace organizations: Shekinah Ministries and Increase the Peace in Chicago, Break and Build in Kansas City, the Ten Point Coalition in Boston, and Barrios Unidos in Santa Cruz, California.
Thomas believes that "the next generation of leadership is coming from the streets-not from the university. It is important for the future of the church to be involved with them. By connecting with young people in the streets, the church is connecting with the next generation."
THE CURRENT GENERATION of urban youth is incredibly savvy (and cynical) about being taken for a ride by institutions that use their street stories as fund-raising gadgets and to further a particular image in the professional world. Likewise, the churches have become acutely aware that if they allow themselves to be seen solely as a financial resource to street organizations, they have missed their true calling and mission. The churches' primary role in building relationship with young people isn't funding, but what Rev. Yvonne Delk, who works with Chicago's Increase the Peace, calls "spirit work."
"It's not about blind loyalty to the street, but transformation," says Mac Charles Jones, a pastor who hosted the 1993 Peace Summit and who now works with Break and Build in Kansas City. "The churches' role," says O.T. Quintero of Barrios Unidos, "is to get spirituality to the youth. The churches play an important role, but they're underutilized. Getting the church on board makes the whole community stronger."
Indeed, in order for the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" to be true, there first needs to be a "village"-a level of social organization and individual responsibility that is sometimes rare in modern America. To create our own villages, we need to reclaim inner-city churches as spiritual resources for the entire community-including for street youth who bring their own unique needs and challenges.
The church that organized around offering sanctuary to Central American refugees in the '80s needs to respond now to the young people seeking peace and a better way of life in the midst of our own cities. It is time for a new sanctuary movement that will open church doors to street youth and instead of demonizing them will stand by them in their time of need.
The Things That Make for Peace is one of the groups starting the process. By making space for these young people at our table, we can start healing our own neighborhoods as well. "Let us put our minds together," Sitting Bull once said, "and see what life we can make for our children."