This past week a neighborhood teenager put a message on Twitter that said, “You know you’re living in a ghetto when the church vans come in for spring break.” I laughed immediately when I heard it. It was loaded with all the pithy irony of a political newspaper cartoon. I saw the van myself. In fact, it was a van of college students coming to serve alongside us. I cringed when I saw the windows, slathered in orange window paint with Jesus-y messages about what they were intending to do in Argentine. That teenager’s tweet was so poignant to me because it encrypted volumes of social angst, philosophical treatises on religious crusading, and cultural commentaries on the idiosyncratic vacationing habits of affluent, white adolescents–all in 140 characters or less. She was bringing to the surface tensions that I’ve only begun to have eyes to see by living here among people who, to state it bluntly, aren’t educated, middle-class, evangelical whites like myself. What I think that girl was getting at in her tweet is that no one likes to feel like someone else’s charity case. She was getting at the psychological damage that happens when you’re living in a ghetto–not simply the obvious dangers of knowing that kids in the neighborhood are packing concealed Glocks, but the more subtle dangers of knowing that some zealous kid is roaming about her neighborhood with Jesus in his quiver and there’s a target on her chest. The subtext to what she was saying was, “I don’t need to be reminded once again through the haloed glow emanating from your white vans that we’re poor and in need of a savior.”
Coincidentally, a week before, a a coworker of mine shared an altogether different story about another church van. My friend grew up in a prototypical biker family if there ever was such a thing. Her parents would leave home with their biker friends, get smashed, come home, go back to low-wage jobs they detested, and do it all over again the next week while my friend and her brother found themselves mixed up in the chaos of it all. Her mom caught her dad cheating on her and did absolutely nothing about it. They’d often come home and find their parents smoking pot like it was as routine as making a pot of Folgers. There was only one escape for her–a church van that showed up at her house every Sunday. While her parents were still strung out, my friend and her brother would be whisked away into another world and into a new kind of normal that was anything but normal to them. When I asked how she didn’t follow the well-ridden tire marks of her parents and the culture they immersed themselves in she said that there was just nothing in it for her. When that church van picked her up every Sunday morning, she was transported into another world where church people, while mixed up with their own issues of vanity and vulnerability, lived in a way that was so much more compelling. The way of her parents was empty and she was never turning back. All because of a church van. The kind of church van that I’ve had mixed, missiological feelings about.
Two church vans, two entirely different responses by the people who live in those neighborhoods. One viewed indignantly, the other indispensable. For most of us, all we need to hear is the legitimately moving story of my friend in order to blow off the cultural critiques of the neighborhood teenager. So what if one girl, armed with a mobile phone and a Twitter account makes a witty, sarcastic comment about another’s efforts to live out their faith in sometimes clunky ways? Look at how those same efforts saved the life of your friend. Those church vans save souls. I don’t disagree. Yet the Twittering teen seems to suggest that the unintentional messages that accompany those same church vans about what who they are and who you are can slowly dissolve and destroy the dignity and soul of another.
In a broken world littered with unresolved cultural tensions how are we to live out our faith when our attempts at reconciliation can be interpreted so wildly different? This past week, we loaded up a group of local, Argentine teenagers on that church van for a retreat at Youthfront Camp West that showed the messiness and beauty of both.
The group of boys that we brought with us were the same ones that have come over to our house for dinner, plus a handful more. During one of our first gatherings, we did an exercise where we explored our own stories and how God has also invited us into a story filled with the same peaks and valleys, moments of brilliance and failure as our own. Finally, during our last session, I came to realize that the Argentine that I knew was not the Argentine that these kids in the public housing project knew. We were discussing how the gospel begins to take root, provide a story, hope and direction for our own lives and then spills out into the world around us. As we asked what they’d change about Argentine if they could, they overwhelmingly said they’d change the violence. While I’ve heard occasional gunshots, it’s far from a regular occurrence. But Antonio said a man was shot on his doorstep about a month ago. Nate said kids were shooting at one another on a main thoroughfare in broad daylight after school last week. When I asked what we could do to be agents of change in this, one of the toughest kids finally cracked. “We need more groups like this.” I pushed him on what he meant. Another kid piped in. “We need more youth to talk seriously like this. And then to be able to get away from it all, clear out our heads and relax like this and have fun”. For the next few minutes we talked about how more Argentine youth would be interested in being a part of a group like this and what we could do about it. Lester leaned over to Nate and said, “If I hadn’t come and experienced it myself, I would’ve made fun of it.”
And there it was. The complexity of the church van caught up in that one little statement. It’s easy to make fun of others’ efforts to live out the gospel from afar. But the college students that came with us embodied everything that we’ve been hoping to instill. They were honest about their own relatively healthy upbringings in the face of youth who’d experienced more brokenness than we can imagine. They didn’t deny their differences. They didn’t make them out into targets. They didn’t try to change the kids’ behaviors and make them quit dropping the f-bomb. They realized they were stewarding a much bigger story in Jesus than cleaning up our externals. They realized a subtle presence is more sustainable than one that shouts and screams for attention–even (and especially) for the sake of the gospel. It’s this that speaks louder than any tangerine-tinted messages on any church van. The church van. Vindicated.