MAN, I’ve struggled to write this one. Usually I sit down and the words pour out of me. This is a bit personal and thus I’ve had to navigate my own feelings before I could put pen to paper, or fingers to laptop, or whatever. This essay is not meant to be a judgment of anyone, but more a defense of doing ministry where we do it. Hopefully, if I offend, you will have grace for me.
So here it is. The last several months I’ve been told several times our church location is too dangerous, not for adults…but for kids. I’d like to offer several responses. Here they are.
#1- Control over safety is a farce.
I’ve lived in very hard neighborhoods as a child and some really nice ones. I remember when my family decided we were moving from the mean streets of inner city LA (where all my friends were) to some stupid suburb in San Diego. I was entering fourth grade and I was devastated. However, my parents assured me, our neighborhood, (which I constantly played in till dusk as a third grader) was in fact, too dangerous. So we moved to a nice suburb. Within a month, there was an incident. I remember getting out of the shower and drying myself off in my new fancy room, boxes everywhere from moving in and my mattress still on the floor. I heard a car backfire on our cross street. Soon after I heard a helicopter circling our street. As a curious fourth grade kid, I threw on my Gecko parachute pants and booked for the house behind ours. There I saw a young man’s body covered by a police blanket. The image of his feet sticking out the blanket still burns in my mind. It turned out a rival gang came to his door, asked for him by name and shot him at his doorstep with his horrified mother watching. That day I realized you cannot escape evil. You cannot escape danger. Danger is everywhere. It was even in our impressive new house in the burbs.
Since then I have actually lived in the “safest large community” for rape and murder in the United States and guess what happens there every year? Rape and murder. Yep. There too.
A few months ago, I had a very close friend who told me he would not visit our church because he thought the neighborhood was too dangerous. He sheepishly told me a couple weeks later a swat team stormed the house next door with many, many, guns drawn, ready for action, IN HIS NICE NEIGHBORHOOD.
Yet, this Saturday I took my daughter trick or treating in our church’s “dangerous” neighborhood and only encountered kindness and never felt anything less than safe.
Safety is an illusion. We are given a finite amount of breaths on this earth. I would prefer God use my family now, even with mild danger, knowing I could die tomorrow from a heart attack in Compton or I could fall down the escalator at Nordstrom’s. I could get in a car accident in Watts or drown in fancy pants, La Jolla. Death happens everywhere and we all have an expiration date. There is nothing worse than a full jug of milk, unused and past the expiration. I don’t want to be that jug of sour milk. I’d prefer God lift a light container and say, “Yup, all used up.” (I like to think He was cool drinking directly from the jug, cause He’s cool like that.)
#2- Sheltering children can be more dangerous.
Kids who have grown up in a very sheltered environment seem to struggle the most as adults. The ones I meet, often, seem ill equipped to handle real life. These are the same adults who brandish several hundred-dollar bills on the trolley to the Padre game. WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?
Of course, they have never been taught how to be careful because they have never been in a situation where they had to be. Welp, enjoy that walk from the trolley to the stadium cause you about to get robbed.
Maybe think of it this way: You have a pet lion, Simba, and you raise him in the comfort of your nice home. (Scar is not going to get him here!) So you feed him steak twice a day, brush his fur and sing him lullabies every night. (The circle of life!) He has no contact with mean lions, nor any understanding of dentists, who hunt lions in their spare time. When Simba is 18 he decides to go back to the savannah. How is Simba going to do? Like how many seconds will he last? Scar and his evil cadre of hyenas will have him for lunch. But wait, weren’t you sheltering him for his safety?
#3- Is physical safety more important than spiritual?
I once had a youth pastor friend who would ask parents of his students a rough question: Would you rather your kids be successful or know Jesus? You’d be surprised how many parents chose the former and made rationalization that the latter would still come. Maybe you wouldn’t be surprised how many parents didn’t even answer. Perhaps it felt like an unfair question to ask, I mean the answer should be both right?
So today, parent, I ask you another unfair question. If you could choose physical safety or spiritual safety for your children, which would you choose? I think most Christians would come to the correct conclusion in word, if not deed. As for me, I would rather my children’s eternity be safe more than anything else. Hard to think about, I know. But if we truly believe eternity is on the line we should act like it. I would like to contend that a safe, sterile Christian environment, surrounded by programs, perfectly fit to entertain and build up the self esteem of our children may be spiritually setting them up for failure. Because we all know life is not perfectly programed. They will one day meet a spiritual version of a hyena troop or Scar, himself and they will falter. (Taking the Lion King all the way here, sorry) However, when children serve and meet the lost, the poor and the hurting, I believe they experience and hold fast to the love of Christ at a foundational, forever level.
#4- Flesh and blood versus ALL of God’s children-
As a parent, I feel a strong “evolutionary” or God given desire to protect my beautiful children. They share my blood. They share my DNA. They go to sleep with my childhood teddy bear, Huggle. My love for them transcends words.
However, there are children who do not share my DNA in our community and they are languishing. They are taught drug dealers and gangbangers are the only people of influence in the city. These kids go to schools we avoid. There is no one to teach them otherwise. I would contend as Christians, we are clearly called to love them as outlined in James one. (Read it, I’ll wait) How can we move further away from these children when God so explicitly tells us to care for them, all over the scriptures?
The least of these should become important like our children. They are God’s children.
Okay now, this is gonna be harsh, but, are we treating God’s children like bastards, doing everything we can to avoid their hazards for fear they come in contact with our own? Do we see them as poor young Harry Potter needing to be locked under the stairs so as not to inconvenience us, and our friends? I imagine meeting Jesus saying, “Yes, I know you told us to watch over those kids but our kids were in danger.’” Will he accept our flimsy denials of understanding? It’s plainly written in His book. It’s not veiled. It’s not confusing. It’s an obvious command.
#5- One caveat.
Just because our church is in an area some might call “dangerous,” doesn’t mean we don’t take steps to protect them.
A)We have a computerized check in/check out system so the right person is always taking home the right child.
B) No child is ever left alone with only one volunteer.
C) Our children are in a building set up for kids only.
D) We background check every volunteer that works with kids.
Finally, I know many of you are called into your suburbs by God to share the gospel with those who live near you and not necessarily in the city we live. This is not a judgment of you. You do your thing. Matter of fact, this is not a judgment of anyone. This is a plea to consider the places in our city where Jesus might be found. Often he was with the forgotten, the broken and the hurting. That is where I would like to be found too. Will you join us?
See you Sunday,