In a real sense the following incident became something of an epiphany moment for me as a faith-based youthworker. Sometime around 2005 I was involved in being the church based youth work student for a church in Scotland, whilst also studying for my Youth work 7 applied theology course at ICC (now SCCM) Glasgow.
Up to this point most of my experience in the previous 5 years had been in church orientated work, and so was orientated around existing activities, such as groups in buildings. As the worker my role was to lead the group sessions where up to 10 young people would gather. And though I mellowed, I was pretty neurotic about it. In a way because i had the time to dedicate to it during the week, I would plan the session to the minute or so or my material, which included games, and activities and discussion. I would, with a few helpers, be effectively the conductor, the leader of this performance, that was in all honestly looking back a highly scripted affair, the only gap being ‘break time’ for tuck shop.
Regardless of the reasons for this type of work, what was difficult was shaking myself, and itself from quite a rigid programmed structure. How I changed, and it changed stemmed from this moment;
The epiphany moment occurred as a result of the church’s geographic situation. It had a couple of flat roofed buildings and was set into the side of a steep ish hill, this meant that from the back of the building it was relatively easy for young people to climb over the railings of a path and onto the church roof. Also it had a concrete paved front area which was a perfect rectangle to be played football in by young people from the flats opposite. They werent involved in the current youth provision, as you might imagine, they didnt ‘fit’ – another story.
As you might imagine, having young people climb on the roof, even just to stray wayward footballs. Or the issue of the odd broken pane of glass became an issue. But for me as a youthworker, I continually asked the question – these are young people – and what must i, or we as a church, do to accommodate them, when they are already here using the building, albeit from the outside?
One Friday evening i took a risk, a calculated one, but a good one.
I thought i would pretend to go to the church, to open up and do something in the building, and if young people were playing football id offer them a drink or something, at least that would be something to start the conversation. So, i parked the car, and noticed there were 5-6 of them kicking a ball around, and as i was opening up the church door, I turned back, to them and introduced myself as the local youthworker, gave my name, and offered them drinks. It was slightly planned, but very much a risk. Very much improvised.
Over a cup of Irn Bru ( yes, failed on health grounds, but the culture dictated it..), the boys and I had conversation, they told me about where they lived, what they liked to do, stuff about their families, school – nothing too amazing, but it was obvious that they felt more comfortable in the space of the concrete paving than i did ( and I was the church youthworker) – and during the unscripted conversation i got to know them, about them, more than some of the young people for whom i was meant to be ‘doing youthwork with’ – during the conversation we still kicked the ball around, football is a great distraction from conversation too (its needed if things start to get intense). All the while i was thinking – what do i ask, how shall i ask it, where is this going – what ultimately can I, or this church offer…
Then the young people asked about me, about what i did, and they asked about coming actually inside the church – they had never been actually inside the building, only played outside, or shouted at from inside to clear off, so, yes, breaking all the rules, and being completely unsafe, they had a quick tour of the building. Only quick mind you, as by now i was still pretty frought with worry about if they damage something – even though i felt i could trust them, i was still taking a risk. They left, calmly, and we continued to play football outside for a short while.
I would love to tell you that this was the beginnings of a long term ministry for this church amongst this group of young people. Actually what happened was that the church embarked upon a ministry of painting stronger vandal paint, barbed wire and also planting trees in the courtyard. At upcoming meetings when i proposed further work with these young people it was talked down. Needless to say i left soon after. It was an indictment then, and continues to be on the primary focus that churches have on how and who they work with. My focus was to be on young people whom the church already had, apparently, not those that break its windows.
What i reflected on at the time, for college, and what i continue to do, is the transition from group work that is one type of education, to group work of another, and the transition of the role of the youth worker, which was scripted around setting and directing a programme – to making the move to start a conversation, but not know what would happen. If i believed the hype about these young people- or at least what those inside the church said about them- then i shouldnt be here- they were seen as that kind of threat. Buildings were to be protected, and groups solidify themselves if outsiders are perceived as threats. Yet that was not my experience of them, they, in 30 minutes were more honest about themselves, relaxed, funny and appreciative of the attention.
Yet that was not my experience of them, they, in 30 minutes were more honest about themselves, relaxed, funny and appreciative of the attention than sometimes groups inside buildings are – who can have high expectations.
Moving into their space – rather than inviting them to the existing groups – involved a personal transition- from programmed, to planned but improvised, taking a risk in what i knew, in what happen in the empty space of the time, in what might be said, or reactions. I had to adjust what and how i might say something – if anything i had to treat them with more respect as people- than the young people in groups who could actually be highly manipulated and talked down to – if i so wished. Ie – i could get 14 year olds to play ‘silly’ icebreaker games, as per fun & humiliation – for 11 year olds outside i asked polite questions and had a conversation to get to know them. There was something of a reality in the space outside, and if there was reality outside, there was something of a falseness inside. Not that it was false, but roles were performed in the space that felt false. Theatrically the masks of the culture were all around.
Leaving the space empty, to trust in the conversation is a big leap. Maing that transition from programming the space to being in the space and creating the space with young people is a risk – but and for some youthworkers the transition is difficult to do. But for me, this incident with the football, the irn bru on a friday evening was an epiphany moment in making that transition. An epiphany moment that started me to trust the conversation with young people in the empty space. Transitioning from scripted to improvised.
The fact that i would go on to see 2 of these boys regularly over the next 6 years whilst on a detached youthwork project in the same vicinity was a bonus. And proved the value in treating them appropriately in this moment.
Yesterday i heard of a minister who was suprised at the conversations she had when she spent an hour of her day walking through the shopping centre, being around people and in the space. Maybe a numbered church – needs an outnumbered (improvised TV show) response to the world.
Making the transition from programmed to improvised – a dangerous one – because i havent gone back.