“So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Romans 12:5
I never planned to live in a Los Angeles barrio for over 15 years, sharing my life with at-risk youth and their families. Los Angeles was the “never” of my life—anywhere but L.A. I had my heart set on going to one of the world’s great cities—Bangkok, Manila, Mexico City—where compelling stories of need ooze out of statistics: kids forced into the streets because of poverty; kids and their families living in garbage dumps; kids rearing themselves when both parents have died of AIDS; child soldiers conscripted to carry guns and fight for another’s cause; village girls desperate to save their families from starvation, whose urban restaurant jobs turn out to be brothel enslavement.
Instead I live in Los Angeles, where kids go to school in a district with a high school drop out rate of 50% (70% in our local high school); where families of six live in one-room apartments with no place to play; where the threat of violence hangs like a heavy shadow in some neighborhoods; where being a young Latino or Black youth carries the liability of being mistaken for a gang member either by a gang or by the police; and where some of the most at-risk kids are homeboys covered in gang tattoos, packing guns, and recruiting younger kids into gangs.
Over the years I have come to understand the words of Mother Teresa, serving the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and in other cities around the world, who often remarked that she found the poverty of the West to be deeper than the poverty of India.
In reality, whether we are dealing with youth at risk globally or in our own cities, the situations are very complex. While we wish for simple causes and solutions, the reality is more like stacking blocks in Hasbro’s game of “Jenga.” Initially the tower of blocks is quite sturdy. As the players take a block from the bottom and put in on the top, the tower rises, becoming less stable. Finally, the tower is too precarious and the whole stack tumbles. Who or what caused that tower to tumble? While the last block may appear to be the cause, in fact, all the blocks contributed to both the building and subsequent downfall.
To understand youth at risk in our cities, we need to see how the parts of the Jenga tower are interrelated. The Jenga tower illustrates our interdependence on one another. Although we may live in one neighborhood—even gated communities—in reality, our lives are connected.
We belong to each other
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Mother Teresa [https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/mother_teresa_107032 (accessed September 20, 2019).]
When the horror of the teen killings in Columbine reached beyond that Colorado community, there was grief and sadness and confusion in the entire country. Suddenly, many students, parents, and communities had their sense of security deeply shaken. What went wrong? There was a sense that these were our kids, and they were killing and being killed right in their high school.
For those who have grown up in or relocated into poor urban neighborhoods, the grief, confusion, and outrage over this tragedy was warranted. Certainly this was tragic beyond comprehension. But why did this particular tragedy so completely capture the public’s attention? Kids have been killing kids for years in some urban neighborhoods, and our society has paid little attention.
Although it was perhaps not intended this way, many urban youth felt that within our society, a young life in Columbine, Colorado, was worth more than a young life in Compton, California. Many children and their families have never had the luxury of feeling safe and secure. A few months after the unrest in 1992 spurred by the now-famous Rodney King verdicts, our team surveyed our local neighborhood. When asked if the disturbances had changed how they felt about living in the city, not one person said that it had changed how they felt about living in Los Angeles. What bothered them was the everyday street violence and the fear they felt for their children. Poor parents also desire safety and security for their children, but that is a goal that is unattainable for many of them.
Perhaps, as Mother Teresa believed, we have forgotten that we belong to each other. Yes, the high school students at Columbine were our kids, but so are the kids living in our inner cities, attending our over-crowded schools, being killed and killing each other—even the angry, despair-filled, tattoo-covered ones packing guns.
“We must remember to save some of our grief for the one who died when he pulled the trigger.” Father Greg Boyle [Fuller Seminary class, “Urban Youth Workers.” (Spring 2002, Los Angeles, CA).]
Compassion comes easily when we think of innocent young children on their own in a cold, harsh world, victims of poverty and war, or victims of the bad choices of their families, or victims of bad choices by society. But what if that at-risk youth is “Diablo,” the homeboy wearing $100 Nike tennis shoes, covered in tattoos, packing a gun, recruiting younger kids into the gang? What do we do with Diablo?
This is not a new question. In the 19th century, the debate centered around the worthy and unworthy poor. Everyone wanted to help the “worthy” poor, the “worthy” child-at-risk, the hardworking and chaste widow. Still today we all prefer to work with those who are at risk due to no fault of their own, who will show their gratitude and respond to the work of God in their lives. But who of us is truly worthy? Since when has the gospel been for the worthy?
Father Greg Boyle has worked with gang members in East Los Angeles, pouring his life out for youth many do not consider worthy of saving, much less giving one’s life for. Over the years he has officiated over the burials of more than 100 young people. Father Greg reminds us that we have to “save some of our grief for the one who died when he pulled the trigger.” Losing a child to violence is a great tragedy. But what a tragedy also is that youth who initiated the violence, who cares so little for life that he can take the life of another! Frederick Buechner describes it this way: “Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you, too.” [https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/frederick_buechner_134758 (accessed September 20, 2019).]
Beyond the single youth-at-risk to youth in their context
Children and youth at risk exist not as individuals in a vacuum, but within a particular context. They are part of families, schools, communities, cities, and nations. Developmental psychology guru and Head Start founder Urie Bronfenbrenner pioneered the concept of understanding a child not only as an individual but also within his or her ecological context. He likened it to a set of Russian matrushka dolls, “Like a set of nested structures, each inside the next.” [Urie Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).] Using Bronfenbrenner’s interlocking systems approach, we begin to see how complex and interdependent one life is. We need to look within each system, as well as looking beyond to the next system. Bronfenbrenner and his student, James Garbarino, [In an article this length, it is not possible to do justice to these concepts. For a more in-depth explanation, see J. Garbarino et al., Children and Families in the Social Environment, 2d ed. (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1992).] look at these interdependent systems, calling them microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, and macrosystems. To understand these, let us look at the life of one adolescent: Joey.
Joey lives with his mom and siblings in a one-bedroom apartment. Joey’s microsystems are his family, school, peers, and neighborhood. After three recent deaths in her family, the mom is mentally unstable. The extended family and the father live in another state, and Joey sees them rarely. Joey’s school ranks at the bottom of performing schools in the state. His home is one block from the “hood” of the local gang, and they actively work on recruiting him. Looking only at the microsystems in Joey’s life might lead us to conclude that Joey is seriously at risk of entering the local gang.
Now let us look at the mesosystems in Joey’s life. These are the connections between the microsystems. The more positive connections there are between the microsystems, the healthier the child’s development. There are not many connections between Joey’s family and his school, but Joey’s neighborhood is a cohesive one, and his peer group is primarily based in the neighborhood. Although families are poor and most people are renters, many in the neighborhood have lived there for over a decade, sometimes two. This is a neighborhood where neighbors look out for each other. When Joey’s family forgot his birthday, neighbors gathered and made a cake for him. Every day after school, he goes home with his friend and neighbor Jesse, and this has become a second home to him. When Joey’s mom is hospitalized, the neighbors rally to provide meals and childcare so that the family can stay together until she returns. In Joey’s life we see how a community can ameliorate some of the other risk factors in his life. Without the strength of the surrounding neighborhood, and the many connections between Joey, his family, and the neighbors, the family might not have survived intact during this crisis.
The next layer of systems in Joey’s life is the exosystem. The exosystem greatly impacts a youth, but the impact is indirect. An example of an exosystem is a job that does not produce adequate income for the family, or a school board that makes budget cuts and eliminates an after-school program. This greatly impacts the quality of life and potential development of the youth, but is beyond his realm of influence.
In Joey’s neighborhood, across the street from a row of buildings where whole families live in studio apartments, there is a small plot of grass. The neighbors call it “the park,” although it is smaller than many suburban yards. This is where birthdays are celebrated, kids clubs are held, and families can escape the heat and crowded conditions of their studio apartments.
For hundreds of people, it is the saving grace of even that small plot of extra space that creates community, and gives youth a place to play. This green space makes a great contribution to the cohesion of the neighborhood. Last year, the city decided to move a police station to this location—the green space was to become the site of a four-story, walled parking structure.
Initially the residents accepted this as the way things are: officials come in and make decisions that affect the lives of residents. But discussions among neighbors led to discussions with the city councilman, who agreed that the park should be preserved for the residents. The residents have been assured that the park will remain in the neighborhood, and the parking structure moved elsewhere on the property. Had the park been eliminated in this park-scarce environment, this change in the exosystem would have had a great impact not only on Joey but the entire neighborhood.
At this exosystem level, community organizations can have a great impact, coming together to organize for neighborhood improvements—churches, neighbors, and schools come together to bring changes that cannot happen through individuals or individual ministries.
The next level, the macrosystem, occurs at the societal level. Racism is one example of a macrosystem. Influence of the globalizing media is another example. At-risk youth in Los Angeles may live in our poorer neighborhoods where no one dares to go, but Hollywood is here regularly filming on our “edgy” urban streets. (The highlight for one of Joey’s best friends was the day he came face-to-face with basketball star Kobe Bryant being filmed in a commercial.) Youth are subject daily to images of what they cannot have, yet the media sends messages of what they must wear and drive in order to be valued in this society. All children and youth in all neighborhoods are inundated by these messages. The youth who will be most impacted, however, are those who are not hearing other messages about who they truly are. Thus Joey feels he needs to wear certain brands to form an identity and be valued as a part of society.
To be involved with Joey as an at-risk youth, we need to see that Joey lives embedded in these systems that impact his life in both positive and negative ways. This ecological approach is a serious critique of some traditional evangelical approaches to ministry. Historically, approaches have focused more on saving individuals and redeeming souls. In his history of The American City and the Evangelical Church, Harvie Conn notes that even when the evangelical church responded to the needs of the poor, it was generally done in an individualistic manner. Those of us who are evangelicals have been better at saving souls than redeeming communities. [[Harvie Conn, The American City and the Evangelical Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994).]]
Even in the 21st century, one of our very few successful models has been to rescue children out of their toxic environments. We love the stories of the young woman who beats the despair of the ghetto and goes on to study at Yale, or the son of an immigrant single mother who goes on to become the mayor of Los Angeles. These are wonderful stories, but better yet would be to see entire communities transformed into livable neighborhoods with adequate schools and other supports.
Together, We Belong to God
A friend of mine went with her daughter on a visit to a ministry working with at-risk children. After returning home, the daughter seemed despondent. When asked why, she replied, “Those kids have something that I don’t have.” Despite her affluence and the relative poverty of the children, she saw something in their lives that was missing in hers.
Likewise, every year several students from our local high school are given scholarships to attend an elite summer school for the arts. At first they have fears about going to be with “rich white kids.” By the time the summer is over, they return with a new perspective. The art students spend their summer learning art and sharing about their lives with one another. The kids from the barrio come to realize that there is a richness to their lives and in their neighborhood relationships that the suburban youth envy. One said, “You have a neighborhood and community, we only have a mall.” The neighborhood youth return with a new sense of pride in their communities.
When I first moved into my neighborhood, I came with the idea of serving children and youth at risk and their families. Far more compelling to me now is knowing we belong to each other, and that together we belong to God. For in serving and ministering to people, we can still keep a distance between them and us. When we belong to each other, a prophetic community is formed that begins to erase the lines between them and us, and we understand that there is no platform at the cross of Jesus that elevates me above Diablo. We stand together in our need for God’s grace to redeem and transform us.
- How do you determine if a student in your ministry is “at risk”? At risk for what, or by whom? Do you think this is helpful terminology, or harmful labeling?
- Bronfenbrenner’s ecological approach to development assumes a set of microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, and macrosystems in every kid’s life. How does this resonate with your understanding of the adolescent development framework?
- In what ways does your youth group, or your church family as a whole, act as a microsystem, mesosystem, and/or exosystem for kids in your community? Think through several of your students and create a systems diagram to visualize the church’s place in their lives. What do you think should be the role(s) of a youth ministry in each of these systems?
- What are the implications of “belonging to one another” for youth ministry? How can you help your students cross the social barriers of cluster groups and status differences to embrace the “other” in your own ministry and in their neighborhoods and schools?
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Theology, News, and Notes, a publication of Fuller Theological Seminary, and is reprinted with permission.
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