Detached Youthwork – The Elisha way

Something this week made me smile, but then gave me reason to think a little sadly about the following passage relating to the Old Testament Prophet Elisha: (taken from 2 Kings 2:23-24)

 23Elisha left Jericho and went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, a group of boys from the town began mocking and making fun of him. “Go away, baldy!” they chanted. “Go away, baldy!”24 Elisha turned around and looked at them, and he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of them.

Whats slightly disturbing about this also is that the Modern day writers of the Bible, put this story under the heading of “Elisha’s First Miracles” .

So Elisha, when walking along the road is confronted by a large group of boys – at least forty two- who start being offensive about Elisha follicle deficiencies, and because Elisha is impinging on the territory of the boys they tell him to go away. If we think honestly, without a suitable law and enforcement agency, CCTV, street lighting, and a very remote desert road, then Elisha might well have been very scared. Did the boys prevent Elisha heading to Bethel? Yet he was able to call on God to remove the offensive obstacle of these boys.

Nevertheless these are side points to the more disturbing reality that at the call of God, bears emerge from the wilderness to devour forty two of the boys. Given the level of panic that one bear may have caused ( ie the boys would have fled) you’d think that this means that at least 42 bears emerged, and were hungry ( or protective over territory). So God is happy to take responsibility for the death of 42 boys? or should i say, the Jewish/Christian tradition is happy to include this narrative in its sacred text, and attribute God to this kind of action in the grand narrative of the Miracles and Story of Elisha?  What does this say about God i wonder? or Elisha?  and why didnt the Bears attack Elisha too ( maybe that was the miracle) .

Maybe i read too much into this, but clearly there are links between this story and the relatively recent (1870’s +) practice of detached youthwork, by churches and state youth services. Worryingly the essence of Elisha’s attitude to the boys, is one replicated the nation over.

I remember growing up in a leafy part of Leicestershire  going along to an ‘open’ youth night held in a church, this attracted up to 30-40 young people from the local estate, but as soon as the difficulties, such as broken windows, smoking etc became regular, the youth club closed, or at least, changed – to work with the ‘Christian’ young people – which i was one.  Some years later i asked one of the leaders why they left at that point, it was said at the time that “there’s no point working with those kids, you get nothing for alot of hard work” and so maybe at that point when the youth club changed ,  bears came out of the wilderness and devoured the young people, and the church thought nothing of them.

However, the Elisha story referred me to some recent examples, that are hopeful, a represent a change in attitude of churches toward the ‘wilderness boys’ in our communities.

On an early occasion in a Perth Community, i was doing detached youthwork with a volunteer (who had a role in the church), it was probably one of his first evenings out, and i hadn’t much experience of detached work in this particular community. From what i remember it was getting dark, probably about 9.30pm and was a warm early autumn evening. We were walking behind a block of shops near to an open space and a bus stop, where there was a group of 3-4 young people, at least 2 boys. We didn’t intend to walk towards them, just through the space and onwards, however, one of them shouted a couple of offensive insults towards us (i remember not what what exactly said).  Safe to say we didn’t react like Elisha, and used their offensive insult as a signal that they wanted us to come over and chat. Which we did. Maybe out of stupidity, or bravado, or as someone said to me recently, “sometimes you just need to discern between what is offensive and what is aggressive” – on those few occasions when offence is provoked by the presence of adults in the territory of young adults. So we walked to this group in the bus stop, explained who we were, and enjoyed a 20-30 minute conversation with them, in which meaningful issues were explored regarding their family backgrounds and future ambition. I think they even apologised for being rude, halfway through the conversation.

Could we have ignored this group? if we did, why would the church position itself to be ‘in the community’ if it did?  For some churches its just not possible to be out in the community in this way, for others it would be too much of a challenge, for others, it’ll be too hard work.

Do i know what has happened to the young people i met when i started out doing youth and community work in Hartlepool in 1996? or all the groups in Perth between 2004-2012? Does that matter? is it not just important to be with them in that opportunity, rather than not with them at all. Of course i would wish that opportunities in youth work would allow the longevity of support with so called ‘wilderness boys’, but thats not always possible.

I was reminded that one of the boys that Bob Holman encountered in his work in Southdown (1976-86) was a young Dave Wiles. He was one of three people who kept in touch with Bob subsequently, but at the time he was described as “a former delinquent, who experienced a Christian conversion” (Holman B, 2000).  Dave recently left his role as Chief Exec of FYT, but is well thought and known for his work in Christian youthwork.  What would have happened to him, if the church in Southdown had left him to the bears?  There’s no doubt he benefitted from having Bob Holman present in his life and community for 10 years.

Churches could take the Elisha route, be scared of the young people, or see them providing a roadblock to the churches perceived plans, and wish that the bears would remove them. Alternatively churches could be amongst the young people, and prevent the bears from attacking, protect the young people from the dangers they themselves face, rather than the dangers they perceive the young people to be. They will be gifting, vision and leaders in our communities, but without being there, we will never know.



One comment

  1. This made me think of an incident in Hartlepool some years back. A church was setting up an outreach for young people and one of the members said “Well we mustn’t call it a Youth Club because it might attract some of those nasty rough young people”!!! Enough said!
    Another thought though, what DO you do when the windows start getting broken, the furniture thrown about and they pour out into the street and start throwing bottles through other people’s windows? Most voluntary youth leaders simply aren’t equipped to deal with this.


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