“If Job weren’t in the Bible, I probably wouldn’t be a Christian,” says Aslan Youth Ministries co-founder Craig Bogard, whose personal tragedies have not stopped him from ministering to the needs of kids in the poor communities of central New Jersey and Haiti.
Craig and Lynn Ann Bogard grew up in a small, predominantly white community in New Mexico but sensed a call to minister to African American youth in central New Jersey after a short-term mission trip to the area in the early 1970s. Thirty-five years later, despite living through periods of relying solely on God for their next meal, the Bogards are still at it. They have faced the kinds of challenges that only a deep and abiding faith could pull them through — fundraising struggles, misunderstandings about their motives by both blacks and whites, and, most recently, the untimely deaths of their two beloved sons, Daniél, 28, in 2004 and Dustin, 25, in 2007.
I’ve been aware of the Bogards’ Aslan Youth Ministries for many years, but only just met Craig Bogard last month. As I listened to this slight, serious man recount Aslan’s history, what I really wanted to know was: How do you keep ministering to other people’s children when your own were taken from you?
Craig says he asks himself that question every day, and did so that morning before our interview. The still-grieving father opened up to me about his new life of “pain management” after I told him about the death of my own child. We shared our thoughts on the bittersweet experience of ministering to children who come from seemingly hopeless situations while our own cherished children seemed to have lost sight of the hope we instilled in them. “If Job weren’t in the Bible,” Craig says, “I probably wouldn’t be a Christian.”
He cites Lamentations, chapter three as a source of strength. It’s a difficult chapter that begins and ends with pain, but tucked into the middle are these words: “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD. I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lam. 3:18-24, NIV).
Quoting a long forgotten source, Craig says, “I’ve done so much with so little for so long, I can do almost anything with nothing.” These days, even with a drop in ministry donations reflective of the economic downturn, the “nothing” the Bogards make do with tends to be more spiritual and emotional than material. Still, God provides.
On the warm summer day when I visited one of Aslan’s three urban day camps, longtime volunteer Brenda Bouldin served both snacks and Bible knowledge to a group of campers while Lethea “Queenie” Ferguson, Aslan’s area program director, organized an outdoor game and the executive program director, Kat Eagles, pulled the threads together.
Queenie says what’s different about the Bogards is their passion for “kids nobody really wants or has time for.” She adds, “Their heart for children takes priority over programs.”
Relationships always have been the heart of the ministry, according to Lynn Ann Bogard (left), who was in Philadelphia straightening out passport issues in preparation for a youth mission trip to Aslan’s affiliate ministry in Haiti on the day I visited. By phone she later told me that program-driven ministry puzzles her and that Aslan’s success with kids has never been based on her or her husband having some intrinsic understanding of the African American experience. “We are not black and never will be,” she says. “It’s never had anything to do with things like that.” She says their ability to transcend barriers “almost underscores that we don’t have to be the same to care for others. We listen because we’re related, not because we’re the same.”
Much of what Lynn Ann contributes to the ministry nowadays depends on what needs to be done or what she feels competent to do. The 61-year-old says her lower profile is a result of both grief and age. Like Craig, she grapples with a spiritual conflict that, in the wake of her sons’ deaths, she doesn’t see ever ending “because there has been too much loss and what feels like betrayal.”
Still, her sense of calling is undiminished. “It’s not based on how I feel or what I’ve been through or anything else. As confused and disillusioned as I can be, God’s call is still written on my heart. Changing that would be like trying to take freckles out of someone’s skin. It is part of who I am.”
I didn’t meet Doug Eagles, Aslan’s chief operating officer (and Kat’s husband), on the day I visited because he too was preparing for the trip to Haiti by collecting donations for the personal hygiene kits that he, another adult, and nine teens would deliver.
Aslan’s work in the Caribbean nation, which began in 1996, was inspired by a youth mission trip that Daniél Bogard took to Uganda. It has three unique goals: 1) to introduce urban young people to their African heritage and to the rich African culture of Haiti; 2) to acquaint young people from difficult home environments in the U.S. with the often more difficult situations faced by young people in other parts of the world; and 3) to offer them the opportunity to develop leadership and personal skills through humanitarian aid projects.
In 2008, Craig told The New York Times that the only way he and Lynn Ann could emotionally survive the deaths of their sons is to be able to see their dream in Haiti become a reality. “Daniél and Dustin were the entire inspiration for it, pushing us every step of the way.” Lynn Ann says the same is true for their continued ministry in New Jersey. Her sons believed in the work “with their whole hearts.”told the Asbury Park Press, “We teach kids that you learn to lead through serving … to look beyond your need to others’ needs.” Not only do the Bogards model this value every day as they look beyond their own grief, but so do the Eagles, who joined Aslan full time after Dustin’s death so that they could support the Bogards and help assure stability in the ministry. Lynn Ann says she and Craig couldn’t have continued on without this young, energetic couple. Likewise, both Queenie and Brenda have been serving Aslan’s youth for more than a decade each.
Craig adds, “Both Daniél and Dustin struggled for years with substance abuse, but this is not what defined them.
Ultimately, it was the drugs that took their lives away, but their lives were filled with service to Christ both in New Jersey and in Haiti. At the end, their hearts were just broken. What is discouraging is there still seems to be such a stigma attached to anyone with addiction problems.”
Earlier this year, talking about the Haiti work, Craig
I think God crossed my path with the Bogards’ at just the right time. A week after I interviewed them, my husband and I volunteered once again to serve in our church’s Vacation Bible School program. There was a charismatic young man who helped with the VBS music. He reminded me of my late son, and it hurt. At one point, I wondered if I could keep doing that type of ministry year in and year out. Then I thought about the Bogards, the Eagles, and Aslan’s other volunteers, and I said to myself, “God will help me press past the pain.”
Urban Family, circa 1965: Christine (right) held by her mom, Carol; her dad, Vinnie, holds older sister, Connie.
I’m alive today because God used an urban ministry to bring my parents together, and to lead our family to a more dynamic faith.
The term “urban” once described people, places, and things related to the city. Then it became code for anything related to modern “black” culture. Now, according to Regent University religion scholar Antipas Harris, the word needs to be fine-tuned once again.
What is urban? Is it a category of music heard on the radio? Is it a lifestyle or category of clothing? Or is it simply a codeword for black people? Antipas Harris has been working this question out since he was a child growing up in Georgia. He began playing piano at age 2 and knew he was going to preach and teach by age 7. He’s currently best known as a musician and songwriter with the urban soul group A7, which he formed with his five brothers. The group blends R&B and gospel to deliver inspiring songs. But as a professor of practical ministry at the Regent University School of Divinity, with degrees from Emory, Boston University, LaGrange College, and Yale Divinity School, Harris has focused his attention on the changing definition of urban and its implications for the church.
This year Regent announced Harris would lead its Divinity’s School’s new Youth and Urban Renewal Center, which will provide opportunities for students, scholars, and ministers to learn and collaborate. UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist met with Harris at his Virginia Beach office to discuss the Center and Harris’s passion for “urban” ministry.
URBANFAITH: When did you begin to focus on being an educator?
ANTIPAS HARRIS: I’ve been knowing since I was very young that I was called to teach, but I was also on the music scene. I was a choir director and music director for my dad’s church. By the time I was 15, I was preaching. I had spent a lot of time working with youth, so that was a focus. By the time I began my graduate work, I knew I was going to do it in theology rather than music. But I didn’t know for sure if it would be biblical studies or theology.
How did urban ministry become a focus?
While I was at the Candler School of Theology at Emory, I had the opportunity to experience contextual education — a required practical course. I chose to do it at a random place, Metro State Women’s Prison in Atlanta. I got there and loved it. I would say that was the beginning of my urban ministry interests. I saw it not as a shift, but an expansion of my theological interests.
What did you discover at the prison?
I grew up with a “You live by the sword, you die by the sword” mindset. I had a very strict idea about people in prison, but when I went there I said, “Wow, God is in prison because there are a lot of people who don’t belong there who are suffering.” It changed my world view. I went from being pro-capital punishment to anti-capital punishment. Even if the principle is sound, the practice is corrupted. The justice system becomes a mechanism of injustice among the powerless.
I observed that some of the women in prison had been victims of abuse. Some of them landed in prison as they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. There were even women there since age 16 who had been there all of their adult lives. Behind prison bars were people with situations that were way more complex than my conservative Pentecostal mindset was prepared to consider with compassion at the time.
So how did this change your direction?
Through prayer and study, I came to terms with my own theological limitations. Influenced by Liberation Theologians and Mujerista Theologians such as James Cone and Ada Maria Issasi-Diaz, I have come to terms with the fact that God works through the body of Christ. Our purpose is to participate in God’s suffering by helping to alleviate the problems of people. I discovered a whole new paradigm of church. It’s not some social club that we join or some building. I am convinced that the church that Jesus founded is the living organism of Christ that has the responsibility to continue the work of Christ in the world. The institutional churches are challenged to conform to the primary image of the body of Christ — an organism and not organization.
How will Regent’s Youth and Urban Renewal Center address this?
The center I’m developing brings together the church in the urban communities. What is the responsibility of the church in light of the depravation of urban communities? It ranges from issues of immigration like in Arizona, to poverty, to sexual crimes like pedophilia, to sex trafficking, to gangs and violence — just to name a few. What about the issue of health care, HIV/AIDS? The Center poses those questions to the church, and attempts to identify the divine responsibility of the church in light of our increasingly urbanized word. We want to prepare present and future pastors to think theologically about the role of the church. Furthermore, we want to promote the value of holistic education — mind, body and spirit — that, I believe, is key to dealing with many of the urban problems. Next February, for example, we’re scheduling the first Urban Family Conference. I’m calling Christian leaders together to think about the problems of the urban family and what churches can do to respond to them.
The word urban has gone from meaning “city,” to “Black,” to anything related to hip-hop culture. You have a new definition?
My new definition of urban springs primarily from the issue of gentrification. The inner-city, or urban, problems were such because originally it was the result of a dense population squeezed together — more concrete than trees, more people than jobs. But the point of gentrification was to reclaim the inner city, but it didn’t do anything about the people who lived there and the problems they faced. Instead, it basically ran them out. Atlanta, New York, LA, Chicago — whatever city it is, the people displaced from those places are now in the suburbs with the same problems.
So then, I proffer a definition of “urban” that refers to a suffering people in and beyond the metropolis, infiltrated and surrounded by violence, pollution, diversity, and a high concentration of poverty and need. This situation-centered definition of urban includes but has mushroomed beyond the inner city. Urban areas now include many areas just outside of the inner city and are quickly advancing to the rural areas as well.
So urban is less about culture and more about a particular socioeconomic condition and its related problems?
There’s an increasing influx of other ethnicities that muddies the idea that urban is African American. What I’m trying to articulate at Regent is that this is not a Black studies program or Hispanic studies program, but we cannot ignore the fact that the folks who primarily are the victims of urbanization are blacks and Latinos.
What does this mean for black churches in cities?
We need an urban church that both addresses issues that are lingering with African Americans, but includes other groups, like Hispanics, that are now being racially profiled. In the same way that the black church responded to racism in the South, with boycotts and advocating for people to vote, now the problem is broader. The paradigm has shifted a bit. It still includes issues of particular concern to African Americans, but we need to expand that to include the collective urban problems.
What does an effective urban church look like?
Everybody should consider the existential situations that are surrounding their church. For example, in Southern California, the urban church may look different than Bankhead in Atlanta. The churches need to think theologically about the issues that are immediately surrounding them.
How should churches embrace various cultures within their congregations?
The church has the opportunity to re-imagine what worship is like. Traditionally, it’s been so black or white. Music is one of the key expressions to culture. But even in church leadership and leadership style, we have the opportunity to share culturally and glean from the strengths of different cultures. Issues like family bonds. What can blacks learn from the Asian or Native American cultures that we might glean for sacred worship? What can be learned from Hispanics? And I’m not talking about a separate Spanish service, for example, but a multicultural service that incorporates Latino culture.
In my travels, what I’m observing is a black church where there are many Hispanics, but they have to buy into an African American way of doing church. Or, here in Virginia Beach, a church with a white pastor and white leadership but a large number of African American congregants. It looks diverse, but it’s a white church with a lot of black people in it. A truly urban church takes seriously and equalizes all of the cultures that are present. There needs to be more corporate koinonia where people fellowship and learn from each other. Diversify the senior-level leadership. Include more diverse cultural expression in the music. These aren’t the only things we should be doing, but they are key.
Sounds like what hip-hop culture has done, particularly in its music.
All throughout history cultural adaptation has been part of the church. Charles Wesley and Martin Luther, they took songs from the taverns and gave them Christian lyrics. There’s a difference between affirmation and critique. The gospel critiques the materialism and the love of money you see in a lot of rap music, but it also affirms its musical expression. Unfortunately, many in the black church reject hip-hop altogether because of its materialism, while at the same time accepting that materialism, such as what you see glorified in the prosperity gospel. Hip-hop celebrates the body way too much. It does not promote modesty. It promotes exploitation of women. The gospel critiques that, but it affirms the musical expression. That’s why it’s very important to look theologically at culture. Culture doesn’t drive the church, but it does participate in the reality of the church.
As I watched countless groups of white kids invade our inner-city neighborhood to do “missions,” I grew to depise the idea of “drive-by” urban missionaries. But years later, God gave me a new perspective. How I learned to love short-term missions.