Tuesday, October 10, 2006

de la soul

“de la Soul” by Keith Giles

Wedged between the high-end cars that surround your car at a stoplight on Newport Boulevard, a drive through "the O.C." might seem like something out of a popular television show. With the beach only a mile away, the sunny sky of Southern California above, and the sunlight bending to kiss the horizon just right, it's almost like you’re living in a dream world.

For many in Orange County, California, life really is a dream. Bills are always paid, cupboards are always full of food, and it seems that the only real danger might be the possibility of a bad sunburn. But for a growing number of people in this part of Southern California, this dream is only that; a dream. A quick turn onto 18th street does well to remind us that there are others who are living in a different reality, yet not in a different city.

Not further than a few side streets from beautiful Newport Boulevard is the neighborhood of Shalimar, a close-knit series of streets blocked off by the Costa Mesa Police Department a few years ago in an effort to crack down on the growing criminal activity there. Today, only one street is open into Shalimar by automobile. All other streets have been sealed shut by concrete dividers, preventing drug dealers and gang-bangers from escaping should police cruisers need to roll in on them. Now a single police car can block the only exit and entrance to Shalimar all by itself, making drug busts easier, and escape impossible.

For many of the children growing up in Shalimar, those concrete dividers do suggest an impossible escape from the harsh realities of this community. But Shalimar is also the central location for MIKA’s youth development program, run by Crissy Brooks and Lindsy Pike. This non-profit community development ministry provides holistic youth programs for the children who find themselves living within those invisible walls.

A few years ago, Soul Survivor’s congregation partnered with MIKA to co-host a youth group which has since become known as “de la Soul”. An extension of MIKA's youth development program, “de la Soul” serves as a youth group for the teenagers of Shalimar and other similar Costa Mesa neighborhoods.

Jarred Rowland works a full week at Soul Survivor Ministries as their Youth Pastor liaison, but every Tuesday night he’s leading thirty Jr. High and High Schools kids at “de la Soul” in a Bible Study.

Many of the teens in “de la Soul” have come to regard Rowland as more than just a youth leader or volunteer. To many he’s become a mentor, and a friend. “My job,” says Rowland, “Is to let my kids know they have a friend in Jesus who loves them, who’s concerned about them, and who will always be there for them. I am also here to show these kids some good, clean, crazy fun.”

Rowland often calls up some of the teenage boys in his youth group to see how they’re doing, or just to hang out with them during the week. Although getting the kids to trust him took some time. “I had volunteered within the community for about a year before starting ‘de la Soul’,” explains Rowland. “So when we started the youth group, I wasn’t just some random guy. So often these kids have been victims of the ‘One-week White Evangelists’, you know, the one’s who come to the street just to save souls, and then leave after they have saved enough kids to merit their next Christian badge,” he says. “These kids have been accustomed to people like that and they recognize who is legit or who is not. Therefore it took some time for me to gain the trust of the community.”

When Rowland initially began volunteering he stuck out like a sore thumb, being that he is very white, six foot four inches tall, with blond hair, and blue eyes. “On occasion I even had racial slurs spewed at me. But now when I roll up to the neighborhood, people recognize me and there is a shared feeling of respect between myself and the community,” says Rowland, “And people know I am not there to exploit them, but to learn and to share with them about the love of Christ.”

Since the beginning of this year, Rowland has begun to recruit small group leaders and incorporate a stronger relationship within the community. “It is the example and the fervency of my small group leaders that have affected these kids the most", says Rowland. "This is the first year to incorporate small groups. We want to do our best to disciple these kids, and within the small group format, our kids have a chance to tell us what they really think about the issues."

Rowland has seen some great progress over the last two years. “When I was the same age as these kids, my parents made me go to church, there wasn’t a choice,” he says. “These parents don’t make them come, and yet the kids still choose to come week after week, and that is a direct result of my small group leaders’ influence.”

Rowland isn’t alone in his passion and dedication to the kids in Shalimar. Just over a year ago, Crissy Brooks and Lindsy Pike decided to move into the neighborhood itself, rather than just commute to and from their duties at MIKA. “Ever since I started working at the learning center I had wanted to move into that community,” says Pike. “Crissy and I had been working in the neighborhood at the Shalimar learning center together for a couple of years. We had both had previous experience in community development and we had both expressed a desire to go deeper into the community at Shalimar.”

After about two years working at the learning center, Pike and Brooks began praying together about how they could make a deeper connection to the families in Shalimar. “That was in the summer of 2003,” says Pike. “By January of 2004, we had rented a house on the corner of Wallace and Shalimar streets which is dead in the center of the neighborhood.”

Renting a prominent house on the corner, these two single Caucasian women became more than just volunteers, they became friends, neighbors, even family to those in Shalimar. “It's been great,” says Pike, “I’ve gained a whole new understanding of the community and the culture, things I never would’ve learned, even by working there for 50 hours a week. We’ve become more accepted by the community and they respect us more and they see us differently. They know we're there to stay and that makes what we do that much more powerful.”

Of course, living in the heart of Shalimar has also provided the two girls with a measure of challenge, as well as reward. “Sometimes,” says Pike, “I just need to get away from the community. Finding alone time and privacy has been a challenge. Plus, it's not like living by the beach, it is a sacrifice,” she says, “but I'm very glad about our decision”.

“Their problems have become our problems, we experience it all along with them. If we come home and there are police cars blocking the street, we know about it on the spot, we don’t have to find out about it on Monday morning,” says Pike. “The kids know they can always drop by our house and they know they can find us whenever they need us.”

The structure of MIKA is geared toward transforming communities from the inside out. Instead of bringing foreign programs into communities, volunteers take the time to better understand the needs of the people. “MIKA exists to help families move from a relief mentality to a mindset of personal and community responsibility,” explains Pike. “Meaning, we don't come in and give them five programs that are going to change their life. We allow them to tell us what their problems are, and then we help them to solve those problems on their own”.

MIKA focuses on community organization and youth development. “It's not about outsiders coming in with the solution, it's about the neighbors themselves understanding these things,” says Pike. “We work with partner churches to assist the community. We're not looking for churches to come in and do charity but to help the community meet the needs that they've identified, using the plan of action they’ve determined for themselves.”

Pike and Brooks are also working very closely with the youngest members of the Shalimar community. “We try to develop indigenous leadership from within the community, and that's done through our youth development programs. We get the kids enrolled in mentoring groups, such as “de la Soul” and the “ExpressYourself” Urban Arts Program,” she says, “And we also have various sports programs”.

“de la Soul” is already having a huge impact on the lives of the young people in Shalimar. Not long ago, Rowland had a chance to influence the life of Armando, an 8th grader who was facing some very challenging decisions. Having grown up in Shalimar, Armando has become accustomed to the reality of drive-by shootings, drug deals, and gangs. Armando is also a natural leader, which makes him the perfect target for gang recruitment.

About the time Armando began spending time with the gang leader in the neighborhood; Rowland began to teach Armando how to play the guitar and began spending more time with him. Rowland even went so far as to introduce himself to the gang leader just because he was becoming Armando’s friend too.

Armando began to share with Jarred about his interest in becoming a leader within the local gang, mostly for the status it could afford him to others within the community.

Several weeks later, Armando had a decision to make. He had been officially asked to join the gang. To Rowland’s delight, Armando denied the offer. Rowland’s years of investment in him began to pay off. Armando believed that he was the kind of leader that everyone had been telling him he was and he realized that if he joined the gang, so would his friends. He realized that he would not only destroy his own life, but also the lives of those around him.

Without the influence that Rowland and others within “de la Soul” were providing, Armando’s choices would have been severely limited. Now, because there were people like Rowland involved in his life in such a significant way, Armando realized he could choose a different path than the one being offered him by the local gang leader.

“I’m committed to being there for Armando,” says Rowland, “Through Junior High and into High School, and beyond. I really want to see him make it. My heart is to encourage my kids to dream, and to help them to see past their current situations.”

The lives of these students in “de la Soul” are quite different when compared to those of other students who live in better neighborhoods down the street. The kids in “de la Soul” come from homes where the living room couch might serve as a bed for the night, or where several families squeeze into a two bedroom apartment, and older siblings default to caretaking while the parents work their second, or third, job to make ends meet.

Because of initiatives like “de la Soul”, because of volunteers like Rowland, Pike and Brooks, a handful of students, like Armando, have expressed an interest in something beyond their ordinary life; a desire to go to church and to learn about God.

Today, as the kids in Shalimar ride their bikes or shoot basketball on these troubled streets, many of them now have eyes that are able to look beyond the invisible walls and to believe in a better tomorrow.

*previously published in "The Noise" magazine, 2005

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