It was May 2007, the 53rd anniversary of my birthday. I had been asked by the District Superintendent of another District if I’d be interested in an appointment at a church there. It was early morning. I was in my office at the church. I got up from my desk and walked out to our half-pipe, climbed up to the ledge of the ramp, sat down and thought about my life as pastor of the church I had been leading for 6 years. Was I ready to move on? Was the church ready for me to move on?
Before I came to the Venice church, they had done a ministry study sometime in 2001. The result of that study was a statement that their goal was to grow. However, their expectation was that they would have to sell the church building, move into their 2-story fellowship hall and conduct services there until they had to close. I read this study and literally threw it out the door. Obviously, my work was already cut-out for me. My rule to them was that they were never have their goal as “to grow.” Growing is a byproduct of good church, not a purpose in and of itself, even if it could be construed as part of our “making disciples” mission. A disciple is not a quantity, but a quality.
Now, in 2007, the church had bustling ministries in collaboration with many different partners and vibrant and extensive youth programs, within the church, outside the church and with other churches. We renamed Cordell Fellowship Hall to the “Venice Center for Peace with Justice and the Arts,” or Peace with Justice Center, to keep it short. We collaborated with Heidi Lemmon, Founder and President of Skate Park Association International for building and running skateboarding programs and maintaining the ramp, as well as promoting Skateboarding Programs in other churches and cities. We collaborated with Inside Out Community Arts, Linux Public Broadcasting, Food Not Bombs, X Games, Dogtown Skateboards, Madrid Skateboards, California Day Schools, Big Daddy’s Pizzeria, and many more, including the City of Los Angeles Mayor’s office, American Gold Star Mothers, and Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Our collaboration with Inside Out Community Arts, a multi-tier theater and arts program for “at-risk” Junior High age youth was our first foray into collaboration. On one level “Inside Out” led youth to write, produce, direct, act in, and do the artwork for plays that were from the young people’s experiences and environment. Meanwhile, they taught mediation transformation techniques and mindset, as well as several ancillary programs including camping.
One day, a young man came into my office, this was the summer of 2001. He was looking for a place to hold a car wash fundraiser and asked if Inside Out could use the church’s visible parking area. The church is located on Lincoln Boulevard a few hundred feet from Venice Boulevard. At the time the Venice & Lincoln Boulevards intersection trafficked 20,000 vehicles on average per hour. I wanted to know more about this organization. The young man, a former program participant, now volunteer, explained what they did. It just so happened that my doctoral work was in Christian Education. I had spent a month living with youth on the campus of the Claremont Colleges (now Claremont University) as a counselor for a program to instill leadership empowerment for church youth. That program was about improve theater and mediation transformation techniques and mindset.
So I met Jonathan Zeichner and Camille Ameen, the Directors, and founders of the organization. They were renting a house, not far away, and could use more space. And I just happened to have access to the perfect venue for their new home. Thus began a new era in our community.
It also began a resurgence of mission and ministry for the church in the community. Other people came with ideas and energy. They asked if we could provide space. We said yes. Years later when I was slated to leave, the local City Councilman asked me for a meeting because he wanted to see if the church would still hold its role as a positive leader in the community. The dying church had become a real living church!
Day after day and year after year, we, not just the church but the community, were building a more peaceable place to live, work, worship, and play. Even as the realtors, developers and police were working hard to gentrify the area, and some high-end homeowners were railing against the homeless and RV dwellers living on the streets, many of us were crossing barriers of ethnicity, education, wealth and social status to build a diverse and supportive community. God was all over the place bringing opportunities to say yes to one another, to bridge what others saw as gaps and divides. These were not so much divides as opportunities for the dispossessed and powerless to consolidate their resources to reclaim their place of belonging in the community and as leaders with the motivation to gather, rather than disburse people.
Sitting on that ledge on what had become an internationally famous half-pipe and ramp and home to the Venice Church Yard Dogs Skateboarding Team, I reflected on what was truly God’s work being done by all kinds of people, from Presidential Candidates to gang members.
This isn’t a story about God answering a prayer or making God’s self known in a moment. This is the memory of experiences day after day of God answering the continuing prayers of hundreds of people in a community to find safety, purpose, friendship, guidance, reasons to have faith and mentors.
I know this is just a brief overview without a lot of examples in it. Be okay with that for now. I’ll tell these stories over a course of time in future podcasts and blogs. They are each too precious and too intricate to tell them all here and now.
I’ll give you one more sampling. In 2005, a 13-year old boy was invited to the ramp to learn to skateboard on it by another boy who was a skateboarder. Let’s call the first boy Sean and the second boy Liam. Sean was high and playing basketball down at Venice Beach. Liam told Sean to join him at the ramp at the church parking lot the next day. Sean did. And he kept coming back and became an amazing skateboarder. He also cut his pot smoking way back. You really can’t drop in on an 8ft-ramp and transfer to a wall ride when you are high (or wasted)
Sean’s family were both neglecting him and abusing him physically and mentally, not sexually. Sean showed up but was reticent and anxious in this new environment. At the beginning he would barely say two words at a time. Months later he couldn’t shut up if you would have asked him to. Though, I wouldn’t have. It was too wonderful having him become gregarious and happy. Sean, as well as many other skateboarders and BMX bikers, who used the ramp would stay as late as they could because there was nothing life-giving at home. That year Sean attended seventh grade for 20 days. The rest of them he was truant and ignored by the Los Angeles school system unless he was at school, where one day he was handcuffed because he had shaved his head because his hair was getting too long and he didn’t have money for a barber or know anyone else to cut it. The school security guard accused him of being a Skinhead.
Later the church in partnership with Skate Park Association and Community Day Schools offered classes to skateboarders on campus so they could graduate High School. Sean started 9th grade, skipping 8th grade, at our little alternative public High School. Sean didn’t miss a day. He was living with me by then. Four years later the first graduating class saw twenty graduates who had concurrent classes at Santa Monica College. These young men and women never expected to graduate High School, let alone graduate High School with college credits!
One-night, just a few months after he had started skating the ramp, Sean shared something his father had said to him. Sean’s father had told him that day that Sean was both a mistake and unwanted. I told Sean that I would be proud to have him as a son. A year and a half later, Sean’s parents would give me parental rights to keep Sean, soon to be fifteen years old. They and their other four children were moving out of the area. Four years later, in San Diego, living with my husband, a foster son and I after I was appointed to pastor a church there in 2009, Sean graduated with Honors from Point Loma High School and is now a grown man finding happiness and his place in the world.
Oh, by the way, I stayed at the Venice United Methodist Church for two more years. I thought I was replaceable, and the programs were well seeded with leaders and funds. It turned out that they couldn’t be protected from a pastor who seemed to find exception to everything we had built and dismantled it all program by program, collaboration by collaboration, even the half-pipe had to go. Apparently, not everyone appreciates what God has had done.
Still, it is my experience that God is alive and well and giving people opportunities to find their purpose, make friends, be friends, nurture and be nurtured, love and be loved, help others, and be helped by others. Experiencing God in these ways has been the greatest joys of my life. Thank you for listening to this podcast or reading the blog.
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May God continue to bless and keep you. Stay safe.
Que Dieu continue de vous bénir. Adieu.