Greetings from Brooklyn, the most populous borough in New York City. Birthplace of Jay-Z. Home of of Major League Baseball. And site of the largest battle of the Revolutionary War. If Brooklyn were its own city, it would be the fourth largest in America.
My name is Jeremy Del Rio, and I’m an addict — if you can call ministry to young people an addiction. Or if you can call city life addicting. Either way, I’m hooked.
I’ve lived more of my life in Brooklyn than anywhere else, with pit stops in Manhattan (the glitzy borough), Staten Island (the forgotten borough), and the greatest of NYC suburbs, New Jersey (sometimes called the Sixth Borough). My wife has lived nowhere else. Nor have our sons, both of whom were born here.
Our boys will soon discover the ABC’s of City Living. Multifaceted and textured, Brooklyn is:
• Altruistic, artistic, and adventurous.
• Boisterous and beautiful.
• Cosmopolitan, creative, curious, conflicted, communal, and even cliquish.
• Diverse and occasionally dangerous.
• Inspired and invigorating.
• Jubilant and joyful.
• Maturing and sometimes mean.
• Neighborly or nasty.
• “Over it.”
• Quite charming.
• Restless, rowdy, and relevant.
• Smart, sophisticated, and sometimes sullen.
• Wide-eyed and occasionally wild.
• Xenos friendly but sometimes xenophobic.
• Yours to love (or not).
So, too, are young people.
You may quibble with my list, and its applicability to youth ministry, but that’s part of the allure of cities. It’s OK if you disagree. We can still get along. We can still build community despite our differences.
Like many urban neighborhoods, mine is in perpetual flux, transformed for generations by successive waves of immigrants. For the last decade or so, Bay Ridge has evolved into one of the largest Arab communities in New York, with Halal meat markets and Hookah shops now lining the streets. Sometimes the newer arrivals make the long-timers uncomfortable. And vice versa.
So, too, our youth ministries.
Youth ministry is an inherently transitory time. No matter how we define the youth in our ministries, they are bound by age, grade, or some other time constraint that ensures that they will move on, leaving empty spaces or replenished pews. How we build community with them while we can determines, in part, whether they leave behind a vacuum or a legacy.
Do we attempt to conform them to our standards of decorum and decency, or do we empower them to flourish in the uniqueness endowed to them by their Creator? Does our community celebrate their differences by loving them sincerely, without an agenda?
Teen life is an inherently tumultuous time. Bodies change and hormones start raging, even as teens begin to confront life’s big questions — the very same questions many adults have yet to figure out, like: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Where do I belong?” But the uncertainty, curiosity, and ambiguity bring with them opportunity for exploration, adventure, and discovery. Do we embrace the unknowns that faith requires, or chase after the safety of what’s familiar?
When the transience and change feel overwhelming, I take comfort that Jesus gives youth workers an extra year with high school students than he had with his disciples. Even more comforting: his prize student, Peter, still needed anger management after three years by his side. Jesus’ ragtag collection of unlikely followers included a political terrorist (the Zealot), a crooked bureaucrat (the tax collector), and a prostitute — among other “ignorant and unlearned” devotees notable only for their least likely to succeed credentials. Each of these people had to be at least as conflicted and petty as the teens in my youth group.
They were certainly (almost) as diverse as my neighborhood.