Monday, May 16, 2011
Take a Walk
Last night at youth group we took a step (actually, several steps) outside our comfort zone. We took a walk on the "rough side of town."
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First, a bit of backstory...
When our church used to make an annual trip to Jackson, MS one of the things we would do on our first day was to walk around the neighborhood in small groups. The purpose of this activity was to become familiar with our surroundings, see some of the work our mission partner was doing in the community, and address our pre-conceptions about "poor black people in the South."
The only thing that was awkward about these walks was the Tourist Factor: the peculiar feeling of observing your surroundings without gawking. Let's face it, if a group of young people came trolling through my neighborhood -- looking, talking, and acting differently than my neighbors and me -- I would wonder what was going on.
While doing these walks I thought it would be fascinating to do a similar thing back home. Des Moines isn't a big city (500,000 people in the metro area), but it certainly has distinct ethnic and socio-economic pockets. A majority of the young people in our congregation come from upper-middle class, white households and have parents with a college education. For whatever reason, I never remembered to do this kind of activity upon our return...
Earlier in the week, I had a conversation with a friend who had lived in Des Moines for 25+ years, but had never been in neighborhoods on the east-side of town. I found it strange; and yet I realized that there was never a need for him to go anywhere outside of the western suburbs...aside from an occasional trip downtown for a little cultural excursion. All of his needs and wants were met within a three-mile radius of his home.
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Which brings us back to Sunday night youth group.
Three days of rain made it difficult for us to carry out our original activity (tending to a garden), so I asked if the group of six freshmen and one senior if they would be interested in taking a walk in a part of town they hadn't been before. They were up for it, especially once I told them that food would be involved. We drove down University Avenue, up M.L. King, and east on Forest Ave. to 6th Ave. Throughout the drive, I asked the young people to pay attention to their own emotions in the midst of our journey.
We parked at St. Vincent De Paul, walked past the Salvation Army and Bethel Mission, then by the Catholic Worker House, and around the vacated Top Value Foods. There was lots of good conversation about these organizations during our supper at McDonald's. We then walked up 5th Street past several homes in need of repair. We (understandably) received strange looks and a few horn honks from passers by as we completed the loop back to St. Vincent's.
There was more discussion on the way back to church about what they observed and how they felt. One lamented the condition of the streets in the neighborhood. Another noticed lots of litter around businesses and homes. Yet another articulated they felt out-of-place. I was grateful for their honesty and for their willingness to try something new and uncertain.
I don't know that it was a major, life-changing experience for these young people. Maybe it will lead to a desire for individuals (or our entire group) to volunteer one of the organizations we talked about. Hopefully it will humanize "those poor people" on the other side of town. Like most things in youth ministry, it will take time to see what, if any, fruit comes from the seeds that were planted.
at 12:13 AM