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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Maybe it's time ...

With kudos and apologies to the Teen Haven Ministry which was started in inner city Philadelphia in 1963 by evangelist Bill Drury, and which has engaged and changed so many lives, and which remains a vibrant and viable ministry to this day -
During the years of 1972 through 1975 I worked in an inner city youth ministry right out of college. I joined the ranks as a summer staff member a couple of weeks after graduation, and stayed on as full time staff. It was during these years that I first started seriously keeping a diary. I think I started it because we had to write a monthly prayer letter to supporters back home and because I kept seeing and discovering so much, both without and within, and so many people's stories worth telling were building up inside of me until they just had to spill out.

For years I have wanted - and have even tried to prepare these stories. To me these simple diary entries seemed the skeletons - the outlines. I fretted about how to flesh them out with the vivid descriptions worthy of the setting, surroundings, and life happening all around me. How to come up with the poetry and language that a real writer would use to fully engage the five senses - so that my readers could see, hear, feel, picture themselves in this place and fall in love with these people. I felt woefully inadequate to the task. Also, because so much was going on both inside and outside my own head, how to sort out what was worthy to be told. The volume of material was daunting even as computers started to replace electric typewriters.
Another daunting task for me was figuring out what the story was about ... was it about a bold and vibrant and exciting new ministry and the dedicated and resourceful men and women who ventured out on the streets of the inner city every day (and night) to make it happen? Was it an introduction to a whole new culture and its beautiful and extraordinarily resilient citizens? Was it a love story? Was it a story about growing up or coming of age? Was it about inspirational Christian insight and theology? I just didn't know ... just as, sometimes, I didn't know, as a young woman rebelling and running in an opposite direction of where she'd just been, but with complete faith in what she'd learned, what I should be doing there. Was I supposed to be saving souls? Assisting new Christians in their daily walk? Eliminating poverty and social problems and changing the world? Raising children? Changing others? Or was I slowly learning and being changed myself? It was, all of it, much more than I ever realized or could have possibly known, about slow developmental process rather than sudden and dramatic changes. It was about a long term committment, for some a calling and the work of a life time.
Just recently I settled down to enjoy my early morning cup of coffee and an issue of AARP magazine before getting ready to go to work at the not-for-profit agency I currently serve. In an article, The Writer in Winter, author John Updike writes "Memories, impressions, and emotions from your first 20 years on earth are most writers' main materials; little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant."
Like Mr. Updike (if you read the article), I can now look back on those days from the perspective of a woman close to retirement, a woman who went on to enjoy multiple careers and earn two more degrees, a wife of 25 years, a step-mother and grandmother, a daughter, a step-daughter, a grand-daughter, a daughter-in-law, a sister, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a niece, and finally, a woman who once again is working in a social service agency, albeit in a much different role. It occurs to me now that the story is partially about the older woman meeting that young woman of thirty-five years ago - and finally allowing her to speak out in all her rights and wrongs and sometimes in her frustration at trying to deal with the challenges that life threw at her with the very limited vocabulary life had given her.
Yes, we had our Bibles, we had our various educations from a variety of good religious and secular institutions, and we had our gut feelings for how to get out there and make things work. We had our varying talents (and sometimes lack of them). And we had our demons. We had a good foundation but we weren't informed - or perhaps I should say I wasn't as informed - by other fields - the social services, education and modern research-based learning theory, psychology, and early childhood development. We didn't have the 40 developmental assets, the creative curriculum, zoo-phonics ... at least in their present form. While we did collaborate with other agencies and with schools, and with the justice system, back then it seemed like they were drowning and that we were trying to retrieve the people who had fallen through the cracks.
So after thirty-five years of false starts, short spurts, and long periods of dormance, why now? Why look back now? What confluence of cosmic events conspired to conjure the drowsing beast?
These are extraordinary times. We've just been through a historic presidential election and we've elected an African American as President of the United States. The little midwestern community in which I live and work is changing. Time is bringing similar challenges as the ones I and so many others encountered in that big city I worked in so long ago. I wonder, how will we handle it? Just recently I volunteered for the first time at our youth drop in program's halloween party. As I look through all the pictures I took and so lovingly and painstakingly developed before passing them on to the kids who so happily posed for them, I reflected, "Who were you looking for at that party, JuneBug? Who is it you hoped to meet in these faces?"
Even though both my upbringing and my experiences in the Teen Haven ministry and since have placed me at odds with the political Christian movement of today, one of the good things that has come about in the last 8 years is the legitimacy, tolerance, and respect given to the contributions and efforts of faith-based ministries. In short, we have now been given a voice and a place in the grand scheme. Finally, after a lifetime of trying to weave the many different colored strands of my life into some sort of meaningful pattern, perhaps now is my time to speak. Perhaps the time has come to let the people in these little skeketal diary entries tell their stories ... to let the world finally meet them ... to let them be heard.
In these remaining paragraphs, I will try to briefly lay some groundwork of how I ended up in this ministry right out of college- to give you an idea of who I was. Then hopefully if I have done my job and let the other people in these stories speak, you will meet them in the pages of this diary.
My parents were, respectively, PhD's in Paleontology and Geology. They met at Columbia University after World War II. Mom's roots were in rural Indiana, Protestant Evangelical Christian. Dad was the son of Italian Immigrants and came from New York City. He was agnostic as was his sister, my Aunt Joan, who was kind of a revolutionary. Or a beatnik. For 8 years I was an only child and an only grandchild on both sides of the family. Then my cousins started coming along, and when I was sixteen, my half brother Bert was born. I did not meet him until he was four. During my childhood Mom, Dad, and I moved around the country and in and out of it because he worked as a mining geologist for companies such as Kaiser Aluminum and Anaconda. I was closer to my mother and feared and hated my father. Actually it was sort of a love/hate relationship. He was at times both emotionally and physically abusive and at other times quite winsome and charming (although not usually to me). But when he wasn't violent, he was fun. And he taught me good things, what to stand for, and profoundly shaped who I was.
At the same time as I was hating my father, I was intensely missing my grandfather on my mother's side. I loved and adored him and knew that he loved and adored (and spoiled) me. My parents' marriage dissolved when we were living in South America, so at age thirteen I returned to rural Indiana to live with my maternal grandparents. I didn't see my father until the Christmas vacation of my senior year in college when he paid to fly me down to Argentina to meet him, my step-mother, and my little brother. I did't see my paternal Grandparents and Aunt until the summer before my senior year of college when my best friend Arlene and I rode the Greyhound bus to New York. Shortly after coming to live with my Grandparents in Indiana, Papo took me to an Easter week revival meeting at a small Baptist church where I came forward and became a Christian. From then on Papo took me faithfully to church every Sunday and Wednesday. Not the same church, mind you. On Sunday mornings we attended a small Quaker Church that just had a Sunday School. It was there that I first read David Wilkerson's The Cross and The Switchblade in a Sunday School serial handout. David's story made a deep impression on me - it both horrified me and fascinated me.
Although my grandparents were devoted, attentive, and undemanding, I was very driven in high school. I graduated valedictorian and was a National Merit Commended Student. A guidance counselor steered me toward Bob Jones University, a Christian School, in South Carolina. Bob Jones was segregated. I experienced quite a bit of cognitive dissonance about this, because it wasn't wasn't how my parents had raised me nor how I believed deep in my heart, but yet it seemed like the only choice or chance I was willing to take. I majored in Speech Education in college. For me that major was much more about the Speech than the Education, however. My senior year I tried out for a traveling evangelical drama group, but didn't make the cut. I had never really forgotten The Cross and the Switchblade and had again encountered the inner city in my sociology and education classes. In fact the summer before, when I was reunited with my grandparents and Aunt in New York, I actually paid a visit to the Teen Challenge Center. I attended an evening service there. I was scared to death. I had called ahead for directions. They told me I had a two block walk from the subway exit to the center. In my mind I pictured walking through a gauntlet of gang members and drug dealers two-blocks long and wondered if I would survive it. But I went anyway. After the service, a young man who had been in and out of the Teen Challenge program graciously escorted me back to the subway and to my Aunt Joan's apartment. You know, in all my years of going in and out of New York, visiting my family, at all hours of the day or night, I've encountered only hospitality and helpfulness at the hands of New Yorkers. But I digress. So when I didn't get to travel with that drama team, and while all my fellow education majors were interviewing at Christian schools affiliated with churches, many of them segregated, my thoughts turned back to inner city ministry.
At Bob Jones each room usually held four or five people - five roommates sharing two closets, two desks, and a double and a triple bunkbed. (Being tall, guess who usually slept on the third level? But I didn't mind.) My room leader my senior year was a very sweet girl from Lancaster, Pennsylvania named Mary Stewart. Mary told me about an inner city ministry in Pennsylvania that her home church supported. The upshot was that she got me the application materials, I applied, was accepted, and about two weeks after graduating from college, I went to Philadelphia to join Teen Haven summer staff doing day club and evangelism work in the city and counseling at their camp outside of York, Pennsylvania. I was the first BJU graduate to ever work for them. They had made a leap of faith in hiring me.
When I showed up for summer staff, I hadn't entirely gotten over being scared of walking down inner city streets. But the first week we were shuttled back and forth between the Broad Street Teen Haven Center where we stayed and the Susquehanna Teen Haven Center where we had a week long training and orientation. I remember one of the most interesting presentations was from a detective at the Philadelphia Police Department. He told us that in the old days before all the outcry about police brutality, they used to haul in gang members, kids, who hung out on the street corners, and work them over - to discourage them from participating in gangs. By the end of the summer I was feeling quite at home in the Philadelphia inner city. I was getting used to being the only white face on the trolley and the only pale body in the local swimming pool. The Philadelphia ministry's office manager Ann Deschler who worked out of the Mount Vernon Street Teen Haven Center (and who only recently retired in 2007 or 2008) once commented to me that the worst thing any staff member had ever experienced couldn't begin to compare with the traumas that people who were born and grew up in the inner city faced every day.
At the end of the summer Barb Staples, the Philadelphia Director of Women's ministries, asked if I was interested in staying on as a full time staff member. I was. I moved from the Broad Street Teen Haven to the 20th Street Teen Haven Center where she lived to begin my breaking in period as a rookie full time staff member. The five Teen Haven Centers were actually located throughout North and Southeast Philadelphia inner city neighborhoods, mostly in old brick rowhouses that the ministry had acquired. The center was located on the first floor - it had pool and ping-pong tables and Bible Study and Library rooms. The staff (yes, we lived in the neighborhoods we worked in) and sometimes live-in youth resided on the second and third floors. Essentially staff were provided free room and board - each center received $7 a week for each staff person and young person for groceries. Our stipends started out at $15.00 a week and senior staff had worked their way up to $60 dollars a week. Staff worked six days a week, days and evenings, and went to church on Sundays often taking kids in the neighborhood with us.
Those were the external facts - but who was I really and where was I at that stage of my life? I had a lot of idealism (as we all did back then), but as I've indicated in the overall intro, I was a bit short on vocabulary. How limited, I couldn't really know until it was put to the test. One major disadvantage coming out of my background was that I really hadn't dated much or learned to be friends with men - at least since my parents divorced. (Oddly, before then I did have boy friends and boyfriends). It's not that I stopped having crushes and dreams and desires in my high school and college, but as I've said, I was very driven and perhaps very angry - and I think I threw up walls that the occasional young man who was willing to try and even I myself didn't know how to surmount. It didn't help that I was the only ethnic kid with the weird last name that no one knew how to pronounce in my rural Indiana high school. Or that I had always been tall - and could never find clothes or shoes that seemed to fit. Or that my uncontrollably curly hair didn't come in to its own until Black people discovered the Afro. Or that my father's big teeth and my mother's small mouth didn't marry up well with my face (read should have had braces). Or that I was kind of isolated on the farm and that Bob Jones very rigid and formal dating system didn't exactly lend itself to relaxing and feeling comfortable - at least for me. So I entered the world upon graduation from college as a twenty-two year old going on fourteen - having, totally unaware of this, committed myself to work with fourteen year-olds going on twenty-two.
Yeah. It was tough.
In looking back not only at my Teen Haven and Junior High School teaching experience, but at all the work I've done in other fields and with other degrees since then - I realize another truth is that I wasn't all that comfortable with standing up in front of large groups of young people in the role of teacher and disciplinarian or of having to force them to do something or learn something when I wasn't sure of myself or my material. My raising and background did not give me good resources to call upon in those situations. Realizing this I often looked to others for example and fortunately many times I found them. But other times, I didn't. As years went by I learned I'd much rather work with adults and children where they are, and in a motivational and developmental way, and in smaller groups where there could be some one on one time. I discovered that I could be part of a team, and that I could work with and lead a group of people to successfully accomplish something we all could be proud of. But this lesson comes from a life time of learning and seasoning - the young girl who started out in the Teen Haven ministry right out of college over thirty-five years ago had just started to learn it.
Well, that's as much as I can think of to introduce you to myself - I don't know whether these writings are "finished." For now the great unfinished task has been to just get some of them out there. Once they are posted, I can improve on organization, presentation, and other housekeeping tasks - as well as reflect, remember, observe, and add new entries, for in truth, these are but a few and there are more stories to be told.
I hope that you'll enjoy meeting all the rest of the people - the truly interesting and touching individuals you'll encounter in these diary pages.

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