With a Coke and a smile, church seeks harmony with outcast teens at The Gate
Editor’s note: Former youth minister Gary Spear was sentenced in November 2017 on one count of child seduction, a class D felony.
It’s very much in the way for an out-of-the-way kind of place. It’s in the way of people who like orderliness and sensibility, and rightly so.
And it’s out of the way for people who have an aversion to the messy work of meeting people where they are.
It’s an exit and it’s also an entrance; an unlikely paradox of sorts found on a lively, dead-end street.
We call it The Gate.It’s an entrance onto the property of Mitchell, Ind., public schools. And it’salso an exit that opens onto a dead-end street. In other words, it’s a perfectgathering place for teens who can’t go far on a short lunch break but who wantto feel far away.
The actual street issmall; the width of a normal side street and half a block deep. There’s a guardrail that doubles as seating as it marks the end of the road. At lunch break,you’ll find teens sitting the length of it as they talk. Some smoke; somedon’t. A Hacky Sack game usually springs up; three consecutive kicks and yourreward is a free throw at the player of your choice. It’s almost always a hard,punishing throw.
Our first awarenessof The Gate was from reading talk of it in the local paper. It’s a place notthought of fondly by most. The neighbors are rightfully concerned about theirproperty, which is sometimes damaged by the crowd of teens that can number 75during the 40-minute lunch break. And there is always trash left about eventhough an old 55-gallon drum sits near the guard rail. The police areoccasional visitors, breaking up fights and probably looking for drugs. Thepreference of most would be to disband the crowds.
The teens in thiscrowd are, by their own admission, typically not your mainstream kids. Theseteens are counterculture members. Many are dressed in gothic black or T-shirtsof death metal bands. They have piercings in places that I would never dream ofpushing a piece of metal through: tongues, noses, eyebrows, lips. And that’sjust a list from the neck up. Don’t ask. They’ll show you anything and relateeverything. Living on the edge is part of their code. Shocking people is anunspoken creed. It keeps away the pop cultural cowards wanting to invade theirspace with normalcy.
The Gate isdefinitely its own subculture, which is hard to understand and even moredifficult to react to in a relevant way. From talk I hear and from thingswritten, I gather most would prefer to force change on these teens. But forceis the easy way out most of the time and seldom effective. Patience and thebuilding of relationships are what bring change, but the price for these is toosteep for many: a price paid as a function of time, understanding,long-suffering, presence and prayer.
So we askedourselves, why has Jesus not yet paid a visit to The Gate? Where have thecommissioned Christians been hiding while this group of outcasts has beenhandled in such an unloving way? How could we carry the body of Christ into theEnemy’s camp and come out carrying hostages with us? We have to stop shootingthe hostages of the Evil One and start trying to rescue them, whatever therisk.
We decided to startwith one thing that can make the world sing in perfect harmony; a Coke. Infact, we offered lots of sodas of every flavor — and none of the generic stuff.We wanted them to know we cared. It would be name brands for us. We loadedcoolers full, set them in the back of the church van with some chairs, andheaded for the dead-end road.
Our first trip was ona Wednesday because it took us the first two days of the week to figure outwhat to do. We sat out the chairs, opened the coolers and stood wondering whatwas going to happen. We could see the teens streaming from the school and manyheading our way. They looked puzzled, finding a church van invading theirhangout.
No overt “God Talk”is what we had decided in advance. We would let our free Cokes speak for Jesus.The teens would have no trouble glancing at the van to see who we were. Wewould just shoot the breeze and let them know someone cared. God would have totake over from there on his time.
They came over forCokes and some stayed to talk. They would apologize for their language whenthey let a word slip. We told them to just act normal. We weren’t offended. Youcan’t expect people to change just because you’ve started watching orlistening. You can only expect change after investing in lives. And this wasthe beginning of an investment that would mature over an unknown amount oftime.
That first trip was ayear ago now. We try to make it to The Gate every week if the weather is good.The teens know us now by name now. Many more stand and talk. We still break upthe occasional fight, but mostly we talk. Teens want someone to talk with.These kids are probably yelled at enough, but the funny thing about teens isthat the volume of the talk is not what catches attention. It’s the intentionthat catches attention.
A few of these teensare members of our youth group now. I’m glad that was part of God’s plan, butit was not one of our goals. We just wanted them to meet Jesus. Our intent wasto encounter these teens where they are. We wanted to see life from their seaton the guardrail. We wanted to stand in their groups. And we tried not to beafraid to look the fool while kicking a Hacky Sack. No wincing from thepunishing throws. No shrinking from hurtful words accusing Christians of beingno use to them.
The souls of theseteens long for something they cannot voice. A piece of eternity has been placedin the hearts of all men and women and gothic teens wearing death metalT-shirts. They know no theology and haven’t learned to identify their emptinessas an absence of the Messiah.
And yet in theirprovocative culture, behind hedges of harshness to keep out the weak-spirited,they are but images of God desperately needing to commune again with theCreator of all.
Community is what weall are designed for. It’s what we all need, whether we find it in a mainstreamsetting or at a gate. Sometimes communities we find along the way are inout-of-the-way places. They are messy and seem dead-end at first glance. Justthe kind of places that Jesus loved to be.
I don’t know whatwill become of these teens or their community. But I intend to have a front-rowseat on an old guard rail near a burnt-out 55-gallon drum to watch. And to helpwhen I can.
GARYSPEAR is youth and worship minister at the Mitchell, Ind., church. He can bereached at [email protected]