Isaiah 61 is the charter scripture for New City Kids. It captures beautifully the heart, marching orders, flavor and strategy New City Kids has tried to follow for 26 years. At the core of the mission is a call to walk with children, equip them to change the world, and stand back and watch them “rebuild the ancient ruins.”
Relying on a charter grounds you. The words never change, but the changing world and the hearts and minds of those shaped and grown by the scripture continue to reveal new elements of God’s purpose, for those who have ears to hear. One of the themes embedded in this scripture is the theme of cities in ruin. Devastation. Mourning. Injustice. Imprisonment. Suffering at the hands of those in power. Callous disregard for the pain of a segment of humanity crushed by systems and structures of oppression. All of those conditions are part of the landscape portrayed in Isaiah 61. Though that landscape is not the subject of the passage, it is the assumed backdrop.
Of course these words were written initially about Israel’s suffering at the hands of a string of political oppressors. But 500 years later Jesus appropriated the words of this scripture – and the landscape it assumes – to describe his central mission.
Each generation has the opportunity to re-appropriate this charter and let it reveal nuances in our marching orders. “They will rebuild the ancient ruins.” These last weeks, much attention has been given to the ruin of broken glass and buildings and cars set on fire. But the ruins of racism and racial injustice are so much deeper and more embedded in our culture, that after the physical buildings are repaired, people of color will still be bearing the cost of these deeper ruins.
My wife Linda and I are white co-founders of a ministry in primarily black and brown communities. This means we haven’t personally experienced what our kids, families, and many of our staff experience. But we’ve witnessed a small part of it.
Back before there were cell phones, one of our staff was driving the church van taking kids home from a camping trip, while I was driving a car filled with all the gear. We got separated, but eventually I caught up to find the van pulled over and Sean, my friend, drum teacher and co-camping leader, pulled over by the police. He was outside his car gesturing to the police about something. My pulse raced and I quickly pulled up and asked the officer what was wrong. His head went back and forth between me, Sean, the van with the New City logo, and he said “Oh.” Then all of the sudden all was well, because this person of color was attached to a legitimate “white” leader. So in this incident, there was no violence or loss of life . The officer drove away. Sean wasn’t angry, he was resigned. This was his life.
One of our teens – I’ll call him Sonny – was homeless. He was staying with a friend, but his presence caused tensions in the house. When the relationship went sour, Sonny found himself dragged out of bed one night, chained to a chair in the basement and beaten within an inch of his life by his friend’s uncle, who was a police officer. It was not recorded on video.
Another time Gee, one of our teens who I’d known since he was five, ran breathlessly into the ministry center to tell me he had just been assaulted by four police officers. He’d been riding his bike just outside of his apartment building when two cop cars rolled up on him. They came out cursing, yelling, weapons pointed directly at him. They dragged him off his bike, threw him up against the brick wall of his building, and strip searched him in front of all his neighbors. Gee knew he was in danger of losing his life. Suddenly, an officer’s patrol radio squawked. “Monticello & Belmont? I thought you said Summit & Belmont. OK.” The violence stopped instantly, and without a word, the police left Gee on the ground, his bike in a tangled ruin. I can tell you the story, but the cursing, the violence of the language itself would create the foundation of life-long scars for most people. Again, no video.
Last week when discussing the protests, anger and New City’s response, one of our staff team told me, “PT, I am a dad, and my fear is that everyday when I walk out my house, my life could be over, because of no action that I can control.” Each of these stories should incite anger, outrage and action because each incident is the one in a million that wasn’t caught on video tape. At New City Kids our approach is to see children as world-changers, filled with God’s strength and power. But the world they come to includes a ruin embedded with cultural patterns that allow racism to shape policy and practice. A ruin that includes the silence of good people not wanting to ruffle feathers. A ruin that includes economic forces that have allowed the prison industrial complex to quadruple in 30 years from 2 million to 8 million prisoners while spending on education has remained flat. A ruin that is in each of us too.
It is easy to put out statements of solidarity and to use phrases and language that signal proper allegiances. But as clumsy and overused as language is, we must use language. So let it be clear: At New City Kids we recognize the racism in our country and we stand against the brutality, injustice and status quo of racist and unjust policies and structures which allow for the ongoing killings of unarmed black men and women. We stand against injustice which may not always result in physical death, but instead kills spirit and kills hope. We stand against the unbiblical attitude of disdain for the “alien, foreigner, immigrant” in our midst.
And we want to use more than words. We want to be people of action. New City Kids’ mission is one of action: Loving kids for change to create a community of spiritual, leadership, academic and musical development. How will our broken world change? We are counting on the creativity, energy, ingenuity, and righteous power of God’s spirit at work in young people to change the world. But those of us over 20 aren’t off the hook. We have to help set up the alley oop.
In a world full of hurt, our mission still explodes with hope. Last story. I got an email last week from Thailin, one of our teens. As if it was the most obvious thing in the world to do, he said he was rallying as many teens as possible to head downtown Friday to fight the pandemic. He was going to hand out water bottles, food, face masks and hand sanitizer to homeless people who may lack these resources. He emailed the adult staff, not to get permission or ask us for advice, but to see if we wanted to help. Many people did. While it would be easy to say, “What’s that really going to change?” what stirs my heart is that he acted. He got up. He initiated. He led. He went out of his door to do something – anything – to address our painful world. Along the way he will encounter the ruins and his eyes will be opened to layers of problems he didn’t see before. But through this, Thailin will become the kind of person Isaiah was referring to when he said “the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me.”
Rev. Trevor Rubingh
Co-Founder & President,
New City Kids