Across the United States students, teachers, parents, professors, pastors, and caregivers are beginning a new school year facing numerous challenges. The uncertainty of the pandemic, the logistics of classes, and the worries about testing are one thing. But the larger questions about purpose, relationships, and faith impact us far beyond the classroom year after year. UrbanFaith interviewed Jonathan Banks, author of Raise Your GPA about how students and those who love and support them can have success this school year and beyond. The full interview is above.
A couple weeks ago, I received a book in the mail that was endorsed by music mogul Russell Simmons, Oprah Winfrey beau Stedman Graham, Morehouse College President Robert Franklin, and, among others, the actress Goldie Hawn. The author included this note: “Dear Christine, I thank God for you and your faithfulness!! I loved your mother and father!!”
After the foreword written by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and an introductory letter that the author addresses to his grandchildren, he opens with these words: “Vinnie De Pasquale and I had been waiting for this day for many months. It was June 17, 1960, and we were about to move into a two-room tenement apartment at 117th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York. Vinnie had recently gotten out of jail, and I’d just finished the second of what would be my three freshman years of college.”
Vinnie Di Pasquale is my father and the book is From the Rearview Mirror: Reflecting on Connecting the Dots. Urban youth ministry pioneer Bill Millken is the author. His memoir tells the remarkable story of how he, an affluent, but ne’er do-well kid from the suburbs of Pittsburgh had his life transformed at the same Colorado camp as my father. From there Milliken went on to establish Young Life’s ministry in New York City and later founded the Communities in Schools organization in Atlanta. His book says he has been an advisor to five U.S. presidents, but the highlight, for me, is how he frames the work he did with my father and others in New York City as the foundation of all his future endeavors.
It’s a deeply humbling experience, as the daughter of a high school janitor, to read such a thing. My father died of a heart attack at age 41 in 1975 and the only stories I’ve heard about his work with Young Life come from my mother’s memories. Those years were very difficult ones for her. As I wrote previously for UrbanFaith, she and my father met through Young Life. What I didn’t write is that after my sister was born with significant medical challenges in 1963 and my mother became seriously ill while pregnant with me in 1964, our family left New York City and urban ministry.
I had no idea, for example, that in 1998 a cover story about my father was published in the Young Life Relationships magazine. But last week, long-time Young Life leader Mal McSwain contacted me through UrbanFaith to say he wanted to send me photos and letters from my father that date back to 1957. The Relationships article was included in the package (along with an excerpt from Zondervan’s God in the Garden: The Story of the Billy Graham New York Crusade that tells a bit of my father’s story). In the article, McSwain talks about meeting Vinnie and his fellow Newark, New Jersey, gang members when he was a camp counselor in Colorado. Reflecting on the significance of that summer, he says, “We didn’t know what had hit us in ‘56. These guys were the real thing. This was only the beginning. It opened the door to Young Life’s urban ministry.”
I love reading these stories because my father died before I was old enough to hear them from him. But he never entirely broke free of his past, as all the narratives I’ve read about him suggest. Until the time of his death, he continued to struggle with the pull of behaviors he learned on the streets of Newark. And yet, he also never gave up on his journey of faith, or on his desire to reach out to young people and help them find a better way.
Milliken writes that through his work in schools, he came to learn how important custodians are to those communities. I distinctly remember my father’s mentoring relationships with students at the high school in Manasquan, New Jersey, where he worked. Those relationships were so significant that after he collapsed and died playing basketball there, the senior class dedicated its yearbook to him and honored him at its graduation ceremony.
What I loved best about Milliken’s memoir, apart from being reintroduced to my father through his eyes, is how he talks about his own lifelong need for healing. Mixed in with stories like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis arranging an internship for her son John Jr. with his organization are stories of his own brokenness and pursuit of healing. The final chapter has Milliken seeking medical treatment for post-traumatic stress symptoms and severe gastrointestinal distress brought on by decades of overwork in urban ministry. “I’ve spent the last three years trying to lead a more balanced life,” he writes, and then explains that the reason he’s confessing these things is that he wants readers to know that “the healing journey is never finished.” “All my hurting places, limitations, and shames aren’t just distant memories. They’re still with me, still clearly visible,” he says.
There’s a penetrating lesson for me in this. While I have wonderful memories of my father’s creativity as a photographer and craftsman, of camping trips on Cape Cod, and raucous get-togethers with his extended family, I also have memories of marital tension related to his struggles. The written story of his life sometimes seems to make him out to be worse than perhaps he was before his conversion and better than he was afterward. It’s a trend in conversion stories that we should rethink. We all live with ongoing brokenness and in perpetual need of God’s healing touch. Bill Milliken makes this clear in his memoir. It is true for him, just as it was true for my late father and my late son, both of whom affirmed their faith in Christ right before they died despite ongoing spiritual struggles. It’s true for me too, in part because of their untimely deaths.
God has a funny way of ministering healing though. Sometimes it comes through strangers who send packages via the U.S. Postal Service. In a letter to Young Life supporters from 1965 that McSwain sent me, my father wrote, “Three years ago I married a fine Christian girl named Carol. We have been richly blessed with two lovely daughters, Connie and Christine. We thank God every day as we see them grow physically, but our greatest hope is that they may grow up with God in their hearts.” Daddy, I’m happy to report that your prayers have been answered.
I was born in 1987. Looking back over my childhood, I can proudly say that I was a “church kid.” Every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, I was there with my family for service, Sunday school, and Bible Study. Even during my high school and college, I took my faith seriously and participated in church activities even when people questioned why. I grew up and befriended other “church kids”; however, in later years some tend to distance themselves farther away from the church. It turns out that this is a normal phenomenon in my generation.
Earlier this year, there were two major studies published that came to the same conclusion: more “millennials,” or people born since the 1980s, are losing belief in God. In April, the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs released the results of the 2012 Millennial Values Survey. According to the survey, 25% of college-aged millennials (age 18 to 24) identified themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” compared to the 10% that identify themselves as a “black Protestant.” Of those that are now non-religious, many grew up in religious households.
Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published their own survey stating that although “the United States continues to be a highly religious nation,” 68% of millennials say that they never doubted God’s existence, a 15-point decline from 2007. In fact, only 55% of millennials say that they agree with the three religious values presented in the survey: the existence of God, the personal importance of prayer, and belief in a Judgment Day. In contrast, two-thirds of older generations say that they believe in all three statements.
Although the Pew survey doesn’t show how each racial group views religion, researchers behind the Millennial Values Survey were surprised with their results. “There was some expectation that racial divisions among this cohort would be somewhat muted compared to what we see in the general public,” writes Daniel Cox, the Research Director of PRRI. “However, we found dramatic differences in the view of white, black and Hispanic Millennials.” One noteworthy difference: African Americans, as well as other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than Caucasians.
Cox believes that there are two reasons why African American millennials tend to stick with their religious upbringing. First, African Americans generally are more religious than their white counterparts, meaning that we are more likely to attend weekly services, pray, and express religious views. According to the Millennial Values Survey, this applies to millennials: 77% of black Protestants stated that religion is either very important or the most important thing in their life. Second, Cox writes that the black church has and continues to be a central part of our community. “I think because it plays such a significant role both spiritual and socially for many African Americans that religious commitment remains strong among African American Millennials,” he writes.
One thing that is noticeably missing from both surveys: how millennials of different socioeconomic levels view religion. Fortunately, there are past studies that could give us some clues. According to a, children from in low-income neighborhoods and attend church regularly earn a higher GPA than their wealthier counterparts. In addition, young people who attend religious activities at least once a month are more likely to enjoy school, be in gifted classes, and work harder academically than those who attend religious activities les often. Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that religion is just one of many positive extracurricular resources for more affluent teens; as a result, religion tends not to be as important later in life. In contrast, religion for a lower-income teen is one of very few positive influences in their lives. Since religious organizations are more accessible in urban areas, it acts as a positive distraction from negative influences like gangs.
Despite the high number of black millennials staying in the church and the well-documented benefits for urban millennials, the question remains why many are leaving in the first place. One reason is that millennials have mixed feelings about modern Christianity. Although 76% believe that Christianity “has good values and principles” and 63% state that it “consistently shows love for other people,” 62% describe Christianity as “judgmental,” with 63% saying that it is “anti-gay.” However, the answer might be in the way the church conducts youth and young adult ministry.
Drew Dyck, author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring them Back, suggests that youth ministries today focus more on reeling people in than nurturing spiritual growth. “Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights,” he says in an interview for BibleGateway.com. “There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but their tragic replacements for discipleship and Bible teaching. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith.” In other words, youth ministries cannot survive on lock-ins and pizza alone. As for parents, Dyck says dropping teens off for a few hours doesn’t make up for what they see at home: “Parents need to be modeling and teaching a dynamic faith at home. They are the primary faith influencers.”
As Christians, the news about millennials leaving the church can be discouraging. But we can use this research to reflect on how our ministries and parenting styles are helping — and hurting — this generation. As we turn from a focus on simply packing the pews with young people to teaching them how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we will follow what was said in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Inner-city life is hard. The complexities of life in “da hood” should encourage those seeking to serve inner-city youth to approach individuals with humility and long-term relationships. For years, I have been bothered by drive-by “mercy ministry” approaches by those who pull up in vans from outside low-income neighborhoods to “do ministry” as if those complexities do not exist. Granted, intentions are good and many are thankful that real concern is evidenced, but drive-by ministries are under the delusion that spending a few hours with inner-city youth from difficult circumstances is actually helping them in the long-run. The truth is that “making a difference” in the life of youth from difficult circumstances takes years of personal care and discipleship, not just a few hours of games, Bible stories, and listening to testimonies every month. Many of the problems in “da hood” are systemic and generational because the chain of child trauma has not been intercepted and healed.
Child trauma is devastating and is one of the ways in which sin and evil destroy the lives of many people early in life, igniting a life of self-destruction and hurting others. Children who experience trauma become teens who present typical reactions like impaired cognitive function, impaired academic performance, feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, despair, apathy, irrational guilt, easy and frequent crying, increased feelings of insecurity, social isolation, sleep difficulties, and acting out or anti-social behaviors that may lead to juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, fatigue, hypertension, psychosomatic and somatic symptoms, and the like.
In Ten Things Every Juvenile Court Judge Should Know About Trauma and Delinquency, from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Kristine Buffington, Carly Dierkhising, and Shawn Marsh offer a highly informative perspective that I argue is just as needed for those working with inner-city youth from difficult circumstances. The authors make the following points trauma exposed children:
(1) A traumatic experience is an event that threatens someone’s life, safety, or well-being. Trauma can include a direct encounter with a dangerous or threatening event, or it can involve witnessing the endangerment or suffering of another living being. A key condition that makes these events traumatic is that they can overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope, and elicit intense feelings such as fear, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. Traumatic events include: emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; neglect; physical assaults; witnessing family, school, or community violence; war; racism; bullying; acts of terrorism; fires; serious accidents; serious injuries; intrusive or painful medical procedures; loss of loved ones; abandonment; and separation.
(2) Child traumatic stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Rates of PTSD in juvenile justice-involved youth are estimated between 3 percent to 50 percent making it comparable to the PTSD rates (12 percent-20 percent) of soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq.
(3) Trauma impacts a child’s development and health throughout his or her life. Exposure to child abuse and neglect can restrict brain growth especially in the areas of the brain that control learning and self regulation. Exposure to domestic violence has also been linked to lower IQ scores for children. Youth who experience traumatic events may have mental and physical health challenges, problems developing and maintaining healthy relationships, difficulties learning, behavioral problems, and substance abuse issues.
(4) Complex trauma is associated with risk of delinquency. In fact, about 72 percent of youth that enter the juvenile justice system have diagnosable psychiatric and psychological disorders. Moreover, research shows that youth who experience some type of trauma of any kind are at elevated risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Even worse, about 50 percent of the male victims of child maltreatment later became juvenile delinquents.
(5) Traumatic exposure, delinquency, and school failure are related. Success in school requires confidence, the ability to focus and concentrate, the discipline to complete assignments, the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors, and the skills to understand and negotiate social relationships. When youth live in unpredictable and dangerous environments they often, in order to survive, operate in a state of anxiety and paranoia often expressed through “abnormally increased arousal, responsiveness to stimuli, and scanning of the environment for threats,” according to the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers.
(6) Trauma assessments can reduce misdiagnosis, promote positive outcomes, and maximize resources. Often trauma exposed children are often misdiagnosed as hyperactive, having attention deficits, or general behavior disorders when, in fact, there are deeper issues present.
(7) There are mental health treatments that are effective in helping youth who are experiencing child traumatic stress. As much as I believe in biblical counseling, because of the physical damage done to the brain of trauma-exposed children, there needs to be more openness for some youth to get clinical help.
(8) There is a compelling need for effective family involvement. Youth who do not have helpful and consistent family support are at higher risk of violence and prolonged involvement in the court system.
(9) Youth are highly resilient. Resiliency is the capacity for human beings to thrive in the face of adversity like trauma. Research suggests that the degree to which one is resilient is influenced by a complex interaction of risk and protective factors that exist across various domains, such as individual, family, community and school. Research on resiliency suggests that youth are more likely to overcome adversities when they have caring adults in their lives.
(10) The juvenile justice system needs to be trauma-informed at all levels — and so should church youth workers serving kids from difficult circumstances.
What Buffington, Deirkhising, and Marsh present above is the beginning to changing how we think about urban ministry. Low-income children from broken families living in rough inner-city neighborhoods are at risk of exposure to multiple traumas in ways that middle-class youth are not. To not understand the pervasiveness of trauma is to not take “da hood” seriously as a potential trauma zone.
The inference should not be that all inner-city kids are trauma victims, but that trauma must be a variable in considering how to help those in need and assessing whether or not current programs are capable of dealing with root issues. I am guilty of making this mistake in the past. I could have been far more helpful and patient had I been a trauma-informed inner-city church worker.
In the final analysis, I would argue that only healthy local churches are capable of bringing the kind of holistic community required to address urban pain and dysfunction. Only a committed community of believers can provide the long-term care, compassion, and discipleship needed to increase resilience and heal trauma-exposed communities.
While drive-by mercy ministry is great for PowerPoint presentations and fundraising brochures, holistic liberation driven by the Greatest Commandment (Matt. 22:34-40) requires a long-term commitment to loving relationships.