As I walked towards the group of teenagers hanging around the chip shop, Gary, looked me up and down and said, “So you’re back again.” ?“Yup, we’re back,” I replied. ?For the past three weeks the team of volunteer youth workers that I headed up had returned to the same shabby shopping parade by the run down estate. Each Friday we had met the same group of teens hanging around the shops, swigging from cans of lager. We’d introduced ourselves, had a chat, hung around awhile, then left. On each occasion Gary had said very little, and yet he was obviously the unofficial leader and spokesman of the group. In detached youth work it’s important to listen and gradually win trust, particularly from the peer group leader, but Gary remained aloof and mostly silent.
This week he appeared to want to talk – a little. As I got nearer he looked me in the eyes and with a monotone voice asked, “So is this your last week then?”?“No, we plan to be here next week, if that’s OK with you,” I replied.?“Ah, so next week’s the last?”?Finally the penny dropped and I realised what Gary was really asking.?“We’re going to keep coming to this estate every Friday,” I explained. “As long as there are young people hanging around the streets, we will keep coming out to talk, listen and share a coffee.”
And from that moment on Gary’s attitude towards us changed. Gary became friendly and animated. He told us jokes and even chuckled at ours. He told us about his family, about how the police gave him grief, he told us his life story and about his passion for writing songs, playing guitar and his great dream – to form a group and record a chart single. Gary became interested in us too – he wanted to know more about the churches we came from and about what motivated us to stand on cold, drafty street corners talking to kids that no one else seemed to notice or care about.
And what made all the difference? How did cold, sullen, monosyllabic Gary become warm, chatty and animated Gary? Discovering we would keep coming back – and then us keeping our promise. That’s what triggered the thaw. ??Gary expected us to be a two-week wonder; he didn’t think we’d be around for the long haul, so he didn’t bother to be friendly or open up. Makes sense doesn’t it? Why bother to build a bridge that won’t last long? Young people value continuity.
An important piece of research has been conducted on recent city-wide missions in London, Manchester and elsewhere examining the impact when thousands of Christians descend onto estates for a one or two week blitz of love and servanthood. The result is graffiti cleaned, litter picked and crime rates down but, according to the research, the effects are mostly short lived. Read the news story on page 7 for more. The question this research triggers must be: ‘Are we really interested in building relation-ships for the long haul or is the limit of our love a shortterm fling?’ The research deserves careful reading and needs to effect strategies, attitudes and approaches to mission such as Hope 2008 if we want to see real transformation. ??And what of Gary and his mates? Four years later, most decided that Christianity wasn’t for them, but they remained our good friends. Eventually Gary made a commitment. He struggled to integrate into a local church, but his faith was genuine, he married a Christian and his life changed for good in so many ways. I’m glad we kept going back.