Outreach To Street Kids

By Fr. George Gray

Portland, Oregon, is one of the places in the country which attracts lots of young people who live on the streets. Some come from families who live in the area. Most come from far way. This is an odd phenomenon because Portland’s weather and climate are not the most welcoming for much of the year. It’s usually raining. Nonetheless, on any given day or night a walk downtown will demonstrate that Portland is popular with street kids.

Some are very young. “Spider” (that’s his street name) is 14 and has been on the streets for at least a year and a half. He was a gentle, seemingly naive “typical” American pre-teen when he left his home. Much of that has changed by now. When we last saw him, he was anxious and grieving because his best friend (the same age) had just died of an overdose. Spider was scared.

“Matt” (about 19) and “Rachael” (around 15) have been together for almost two years now. They met on the streets. Matt has been in and out of jail a number of times. Among other things, he was charged with murder. He’s now on probation. Up until last Christmas, Matt and Rachael would move from shelter to shelter (the average stay allowed is two weeks). They now have an apartment and have found jobs. This couple’s story has a good ending. The anecdotes could go on and on.

How Our Parish Got Involved

Our parish got involved in Street Kid Ministry by chance, not by design. (That’s the way things often happen here.) About 18 months ago, I was at the local Orthodox Book Store and ran into a young married couple who had just arrived from the Midwest to begin their studies at an Evangelical Bible college in town. They were looking for a church to attend and had bumped into Orthodox Christianity. I gave them the addresses of the various parishes in Portland and told them that I hoped that they would come to St. Nicholas sometime.

Two weeks later John and Jenny attended Liturgy. They returned regularly, but they often weren’t alone. I remember one time when they had brought with them a pretty rough-looking, much younger couple: Matt and Rachael. The four visitors stayed for our weekly parish lunch after Liturgy. John and Jenny also began to participate in our Inquirers’ Class.

As part of their college curriculum, John and Jenny were involved in a designated “ministry.” They had chosen to work two nights each week at a drop-in center for street kids. This center was funded through an Evangelical Covenant congregation in the suburbs and housed in a Baptist church downtown—in the midst of the “action,” and staffed by people from a wide variety of churches.

The drop-in center was a place where the street kids could go for some food, to do art projects (that was Jenny’s specialty), or to just “hang out” and chat (that was where John really shone).

As John and Jenny became more active in the life of St. Nicholas, they attracted a couple of other college-age parishioners to help out from time to time in their ministry assignment. Occasionally they brought some of their street kid buddies to Vespers or Liturgy.

Then a series of major transitions took place. John and Jenny had become catechumens and were preparing for chrismation at Pascha. The school year (and their ministry assignment) was coming to a close. The drop-in center itself was undergoing significant administrative and financial “perestroika.” It even looked as though it would close down that summer. Needless to say this all had a big effect on John and Jenny.

To Stay In Touch With The Street Kids?

They asked our parish to pray for the Lord’s will to be done regarding the drop-in center. For a number of reasons, John and Jenny didn’t feel that they could stay with it, but they didn’t feel that the Lord wanted them to stop their outreach to the street kids either (especially the ones who were now their friends).

So, we put it to the parish. What to do? Overwhelmingly the response was that we should help John and Jenny. O.K. But how? Well, it seemed as if they could hit the streets occasionally with the parish’s support, some food and maybe a Zine (more about that, later), they could keep their outreach to the kids. And wouldn’t it be better if there were three or four people out there together, working the streets (safety, fellowship, encouragement, etc.)

Our parishioners began to put together a collection of things like juice boxes, small bags of pretzels, packets of cookies, etc., for distribution. We have a couple of parishioners who work at a Subway Sandwich Shop. They’re able to provide the makings for hosts of hoagies. The church school kids have assembled little bags of things like toothbrushes, toothpaste, wool gloves (in the winter), and fruit. Sometimes this would be for us to hand out and other times these things would be given to a local shelter run by the Salvation Army. And then there’s the Zine.

A “Zine”

A Zine is a counter-culture “magazine” which is meant to look “punk” and rough. It has lots of cut-and-paste graphics and text. Zines are popular with street kids and other “alternative” types. The usual subject matter of a Zine is music, lyrics, anger, rebellion, underground counter-culture, stories, etc. We had seen two Orthodox Zines from parishes in California: Death to the World and Agia Sophia, each having its own very different flavor—the audience for which they each were intended was different from the street kids in Portland. Orthodox Zines deal with music, lyrics, anger, rebellion, underground counter culture, but also include hymnographic texts, and true stories of hope, conversion and commitment. And after all, isn’t Christianity radically counter to “this world’s” culture anyway? So we planned to come up with our own Zine. John, Jenny and another young couple—Kevin (a journalist) and Jemima (a graphic artist)—all worked on Imago Dei and produced it in time for Halloween.

Why Halloween? Well, that date is the darkest of the year and a time of real spiritual intensity. Satan is alive and well on the streets: overtly and covertly. Read the Gospel of John, chapter 1 (our Paschal Gospel) in order to see just “why Halloween?” So the first issue of Imago Dei focused on unseen warfare and the Triumph of the Cross.

We then went out as a group of five on Halloween to join another couple of groups from other congregations. (The Evangelical Protestants in town are active in this sort of thing.) One of our parishioners, Anthony, chose to stay behind at the church. He wanted to pray compline, one of the Akathists, and the psalms while we were on the streets. We were thankful for this support.

This began our outreach. As things have worked out, we’ve not been able to be as regular in heading out as we had wanted. It’s been something short of once each month, and not on a fixed day or night. It’s still pretty “small scale.” Sometimes we’ll go out after Liturgy on a Sunday. Other times it’ll be after one of the weekday Vespers services. When it’s raining hard, there are very few kids on the streets but lots of bums. But they’re happy to take the sandwiches and juice boxes too.

Some Observations From Our Experience

One thing to emphasize is this: We’re not out there to proselytize. We do not go out there and offer food and then expect the street kids to sing hymns or give their lives over to Jesus on the spot. I’ve seen this type of outreach and it is far from what we are about. We are there simply to give a bit of warmth, food, and a smile (and if internally it is done in the Name of the Lord, then that’s our little secret). We do want to share our faith with the kids. Evangelism can be done in love and respect, through building trusting relationships. We are definitely out there on the streets for the Gospel to shine forth, but we don’t intend to force its light to be embraced. The street kids are very much turned off from some “Christian” ministries and are thankful for others. And they are very astute at discerning if they are being “used” as an object of outreach for outreach’s sake, and want very little to do with any “agenda.” However, despite the occasional visits of some of the street kids to our church, one attends regularly now. He hasn’t expressed any interest in embracing Orthodox Christianity, but he’s presently drawn to the worship and the community here.

Another thing to emphasize: It is very difficult to get this kind of outreach going if the “chemistry” is not just right. John and Jenny knew a number of the street kids from their previous year-long, consistent work at the drop-in center. So there was a certain level of trust (perhaps somewhat guarded) with them. It takes time to develop trusting relationships (on both sides) with these kids. A “snap” kind of outreach is not going to work. If you want to work in this area, my suggestion would be to locate an already-established outreach ministry, crisis line, drop-in center, shelter, etc., and become involved. One Orthodox parish in California rents a store front and runs its own drop-in center/coffee shop. But this works well now because they’ve been doing it for a number of years. They are a known entity in town.

Something else: We can’t judge the kids’ behavior, appearance, language, lifestyle and diseases (yes, HIV and hepatitis are rampant). It’s usually because their families did judge them that they have run away and are out on the streets in the first place. And many of the kids are out there trying to “beat the system.” This has been a factor that some of our parishioners have raised and criticized about our outreach: we’re not helping “rehabilitate” these young people. Well, that’s right, we aren’t. We’re just there. Period.

And another: Our parish prays for the street kids by name at each service. They are added to our regular intercession list that is submitted from the candle desk. We can’t take all their names at each service, so we have the list divided up. We were involved in this ministry of intercession long before the parish actually gave its support and encouragement to this outreach. Some parishioners have met occasionally in order to pray an Akathist on behalf of the street kids (“Glory to God for All Things,” composed by Fr. Gregory Petrov, killed in the gulag in the 1940s).

And lastly: Interest will wax and wane. You’ll not receive many (if any) immediate strokes or thanks. You and your supporters won’t see any results. It’s likely that you’ll get frustrated and be tempted to throw it all in. But that’s just what Satan wants. So don’t get discouraged.

Now, if after having read all this, if you have any inclination to look into a ministry with street kids, Bless you.

Here are some resources that might be of assistance:

Gutter Punks,” Williamette Week, 21:4, 9/13/96, (822 S.W. 10th, Portland, OR 97205).

Running Scared,” Time, 144:21, 11/21/94.

Video: Streetlife (503) 244-0511 (Portland, OR) @ $19.95.

There’s no such thing as a childhood on the streets,” U.S. Catholic, 58:93, 3/93.

Fr. George Gray is pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Portland, Oregon.

An Encounter With A Street Kid

Jim (name changed) is dying of AIDS. Today, he came to the art table at the drop-in center, grinning wildly. I said, “Jim, how are you?” He said he was (some incredibly long strand of adjectives, all meaning fabulous). I asked why. He said his T-cell count is up, that his doctor is baffled by it and he is thrilled.

Suddenly his eyes lit on the art work behind me. “Oh, there’s my art!” Behind me is a series of seven paintings, half with a black background, half with a green background. His art is covered with multiple streaks of color—he has been creating these for about a month now. He would like to sell them for hundreds of dollars.

Jim is wearing gaudy rings on his hands. His black hair is cut short. His chest, exposed beneath his tank-top, is completely bare. He shaves his chest regularly so that he can dance as a drag queen in a gay bar. I am beginning to love Jim.

I notice his hands are covered with open sores. I see dried blood in splotches on his thumb and knuckles. I ask Jim where they come from and he shrugs, “I don’t know.” I do know—I have studies AIDS enough to know that victims often have blisters and open sores—this is evidence of the progress of his illness. I also know that AIDS spreads through blood, and I am a bit uncomfortable with these blisters and open sores. I remind myself that I must have a cut to be vulnerable and I feel better.

Jim looks at me a moment. “Sometimes I wish I would just be taken in my sleep…”

I look at Jim. “I think it’s good you have time to prepare.”

He says, “Time to prepare for what?”

“Time to deal with your relationships on earth and time to prepare to meet God.”

Jim is silent a moment. “I don’t think I can do anything else to prepare.”

I say, “There is…” and he cuts me off, finishing my sentence for me. “There is always more I can do to prepare to meet God.”

Later, after the paintings are put away and our group has begun to pray, I notice Jim has fallen asleep on the ground beside us. His ringed fingers are crossed as he rests his head in the bend of his elbows. Suddenly, I see him as a child, broken and afraid. I see how the Lord must look upon him, and I pray, “Lord, cover Jim with Your love.”

—Jenny Schroedel

Fr. George Gray is pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Portland, Oregon.