A lot of times I’m close to losing patience with them. They are wild, boisterous, and coarse… especially in a close van. Yet I am drawn to them. These kids are fun, interesting and engaging. I’m talking about my new group of players for my elementary age basketball team… cobbled together from families who come to church, mentoring at the elementary school, and younger siblings of older kids in our ministry. It’s a lot of work to keep them together, but my goal is for them to build friendships and a sense community in Christ. I know them each from different places, but they all live in the heart of north Minneapolis, and experience the daily trauma of growing up black and male in the inner city.
Keeping them together is the challenge. The support of community and connection to Christ we try to provide could be the factor which makes a difference in their lives… enabling them to reach adulthood with the capability of living a full and satisfying life. They each have different groups of friends, different schools, and different homes. But basketball is the great attraction. In this neighborhood most all little boys love basketball and want to play on a team, whether they show great aptitude or not. Through the medium of basketball I can bring kids together who would normally never bond. [I’m not even especially partial to basketball, I wish they responded so readily to track and field!] The boys will gather willingly two and three times a week for practice and games. They will even submit to timely lectures and “preaching” about life and Christian character.
As they grow older the challenge to keep them together grows greater. Middle school age presents its own unique struggles for neighborhood youth. Through their peers and environment, they become exposed to gangs, crime, drugs, and promiscuity. The attraction of basketball is still there but by itself is insufficient to overcome the lure of the ‘hood. But by now the power of relationship can kick in. The friendships they’ve built with one another, and their relationship with me. Said one mom when her child became involved with us… “that’s Pastor Chris, boy! Once you start doing stuff with him, he’s your friend for life!” A positive relationship with a male adult… a precious commodity among inner city boys. We typically lose some in the transition to middle school but for the most part I’m able to keep my group intact. In addition to basketball there are summer camps, trips to Chicago, and I’ve begun to introduce them to church… fun times but more importantly, precious opportunities for them to encounter Christ.
By the time they are high school age we’ve inevitably lost a few more… to the ‘hood, transiency, disinterest; but my core group remains. The challenge now is to keep them engaged in new ways. Basketball and fun trips are still available but they require more substantive offerings. I have to go deeper in relationship. I have to spend time individually with them and find out what their deep needs are and what motivates them. At this age they begin to realize that life does not hold much promise for them and they begin to give up, to settle for temporary distractions. I work to instill a vision in them for their future, to put off momentary gratification for future goals. We encourage them in developing their unique gifts. We do college trips and provide experiences of life outside of the neighborhood. We offer leadership opportunities and work through jobs and participation in the ministry as junior counselors for the young. I am more intentional now about discipleship and male responsibility. Their peer group relationships which we have established helps to keep them in the fold. But most often my interactions with them at this age are individual, helping them through family, school and community problems. High school graduation becomes the brass ring of achievement. Once they achieve that goal the future horizon opens up with possibilities for gainful employment, trade school or college. Even then, we anticipate a year or two of maturation before they are on the solid ground of self-sufficiency.
It’s a lifelong process. But this is our why we are here, to bring them along to the point of adulthood, to a place of self-sufficiency and self-knowledge as children of God. We are not always successful and often experience heartache, but it is a formula that we have seen work time and time again, by God’s grace. Child by child, family by family, generation to generation we seek to influence this community, to God’s glory.