It’s important to bear in mind these singers and musicians are
teenagers. Bari Taylor, the mad genius flailing away in jazz
ninth chords, was fifteen years old at the time. Almost none of
these kids were old enough to drive. Nobody made them come to
the old United Methodist church on Boulder Street. They invited
each other. When teens are having fun, they tell other teens.
Next thing you know, you have a mob on your hands. We didn’t
quite have a mob, but we had a fairly large group of energized
teens and a steady crowd of hangers-on who just liked to listen
to them sing. They loved taking pictures. They were such hams; I
never had to pose them, they just knew what to do. They really
loved each other. They were really there for each other. They
loved to sing. They’d just spontaneously burst into song, in
K-Mart, in the buffet joint, walking down the street. These kids
were amazing. It was impossible to not fall in love with every
last one of them.
This was, for me, a love affair of exponential possibilities. I loved music. I loved kids. Riverside was one of those life lessons or cautionary tales that shapes one’s thinking. I could scarcely imagine attempting something like this ever again, at least not here. It may have been the best and worst idea I’ve ever had.
I’ve always suffered from a crippling naiveté, the Riverside experience being one of the best examples. I could scarcely imagine a more universal and systemic failure in youth ministry than what I’ve seen in the black churches here in Colorado Springs. While I’m sure (and pray) there must certainly be exceptions, my consistent observation has been youth ministry run by well-meaning but ultimately clueless individuals who have done and are, generationally, doing grave harm to the faith and cause of Jesus Christ. These are people who, for the most part, are simply replicating the same toothless and egregiously wrongheaded youth ministry they themselves remember from their own youth. None of the programs I’ve observed, at dozens of churches here, have any bite to them whatsoever. They have no edge. They take absolutely no chances. The youth leaders are either completely lost in space or are cowed by the over-protective mommies who are the chief cause of our young peoples’ decline into faithless apostasy.
Number one with a bullet are the single mommies. With married mommies there is usually an appellate court to be found in the daddies. Single mommies are, more often than not, ridiculously over-protective of their kids and shield them from any and everything that even remotely questions their parenting skills. I need you to understand what I am saying here: my experience with single mommies is their number one priority is to protect themselves—the mommies’ own sense of self-worth, purpose and security. Many of these emotionally wounded women use their children as Methadone to calm the emotional distress of serial ruined relationships.
I’ve met single mommies who went completely postal because I required their kids to read two (2) chapters of the bible each week and quizzed them on it. “My kids have full schedules—they have soccer practice and dance and basketball. They’re already overworked-- I don’t need you adding things!” Which misses the point that, if your children do not know Jesus Christ in the pardoning of their sin, all that soccer practice and dance won’t do them a bit of good. This woman was not angry because I was making her kids read the bible, she felt accused because she obviously wasn’t requiring her kids to read the bible, which is a violation of the idiotic and unscriptural National Baptist covenant many churches stand and read in unison--most of them lying-- once per month. The covenant calls for both family and secret devotions. I’ve met precious few mothers devoted enough to their children to actually conduct such devotions. My weekly two-chapter requirement was, therefore, received by this mommy as an accusation, which it was not. But she made it all about her. Single mommies always make it about themselves. Single mommies are usually suspicious of and/or angry toward men. This was why I always worked in tandem with women at the church. Single mommies usually braced at anything I said or asked they or their children to do, but I could get through the radar if I sent a sister forward to dialogue with them.
White churches here have amazing and powerful youth programs. One church has its own chapel built especially for the youth which resembles a night club with a stage and tables and a rock band and youth leaders in jeans who preach an effective Gospel in language teens can relate to. They deal directly in the main issues facing teens—sex, drugs, abortion, values in media, sexual identity—absolutely none of which can be meaningfully engaged in any youth program in a black church here. What I’ve universally seen in black churches here are tepid, toothless programs teaching the order of the books of the bible and rounding the corners off reality as a handful of teens slouch with folded arms and sit through this nonsense, ready and anxious to light up a joint and get back to cussing and fornicating the moment the bell rings.
This is not ministry. This is a horrendous failure on the part of pastors, most of them here kind but totally insulated from reality and cowed by their own membership. Like our members of Congress, most black pastors here are first and foremost invested in keeping their jobs. They absolutely will not do anything that puts their cushy pastor gig at risk. Standing up to ignorance is simply not something most of these men are willing to do. This is why we have the insanity of single mommies demanding my head because I asked their kid to read two chapters of the bible each week, while allowing—and paying for—their kids to watch endless hours of profane, antichrist, sexually deviant, immoral bullshit on TV, listen to it on “smart” phones, and post semi-nude pictures of themselves on Facebook.
This is the overall quality of parenting here. This is what black pastors routinely, without blinking, allow to transpire without their saying one blessed word about it. Youth leaders who challenge these values, who reach out, who confront tough issues, are almost always called on the carpet by angry mommies and the pastors have, to my personal observation, universally caved in, one pastor actually suspending a highly effective youth minister for a full year. These pastors are simply afraid of their own people. They have incredibly tight budgets and struggle, daily, to keep the doors open. By “struggle,” what I mean is they are struggling to keep the doors open without cutting their own paychecks, which are typically the biggest line item of most of these tiny congregations here. Throwing the youth to the wolves and leaving their well-being in the hands of insecure, nervous women whose moral compass is broken and polarity reversed to the point where they are addicted to ABC’s inane, immoral and frankly idiotically stupid soap Scandal (churches are beginning to schedule their events around this show, which is mostly about covering up sexual immorality—it’s just too stupid to go into—but black church women are literally addicted to it), while angrily opposing any meaningful intervention into their child’s lives is typical of these men whose pastorate—which many treat as a kind of paid retirement—is their number one priority. This is why we see generationally shrinking congregations.
Arriving here, in all of my glorious naiveté, I thought a solution to some of this madness would be to put together an independent youth choir. By not building it around any one church, we’d not be building it around any one pastor. Thus, we'd reduce the voltage in terms of church politics, and would be better able to move in a progressive fashion. We could do music most pastors would never, ever allow in their own churches. Through that music, we could teach values and, by subterfuge, teach them something about the bible.
What an incredible idiot I was.
I Am Kevin Bacon
into immediate problems. First: no black church here would open
their doors to us. Not only would no black pastor here give us a
place to practice, but some black pastors began to network
against the project, calling and warning other pastors to not
support this city-wide youth choir. They warned about me, whom
none of them knew, warned about the adult women assisting me. We
had white pastors graciously offer to allow us in their
churches, but we needed a location closer to where our kids
actually lived. We finally found refuge in a United Methodist
church headed by a black pastor, The Reverend Wayne T. Houston.
But even Pastor Houston knew his own congregation would rebel
and have fits if they knew these “rock and roll kids” were in
their sanctuary jamming all night. We could rehearse there, but
we had to hide our equipment—a truckload of P.A. and
instruments—after every rehearsal. The set-up and tear-down was
tedious and time consuming, and we had to carry lots of heavy
equipment up two flights of steps and hide it in the church’s
attic. We had to pray none of the church’s members would happen
by on rehearsal night, where the old church would sound a lot
like a night club from the street.
The work was exhausting. The results were, however, heartening. The group grew fairly quickly as curious teens came out and realized we weren’t doing That Old Rugged Cross. It was their music, their way, the lyrics engaging their issues. They were having fun, the energy was very high.
Creepin’/ Elemental homicidal Xenophobic Gangsta / Said he was a Pranksta / Tupac was a thug / Took a bullet for the Suge / If you ask me it was low down / But it was the life he was leading
As he lay there bleeding / I wonder if he wondered if / A gangsta goes to heaven / Or does Jesus only love / Elvis and The Beatles / Lawrence Welk bubbles / Afrocentric struggle / Brother is in trouble...
I slowly became aware of the reasons my calls were not being returned and why pastors were declining to meet with me. The central issues seemed to be the progressive nature of the music and the length of my hair, neither being acceptable to many black pastors here. As Riverside grew from a small band to a good group of singing teens, there seemed to be, I don't know, jealousy and rivalry from these pastors, who seemed to demonstrate an egregious and frightening immaturity. They apparently felt threatened and cornered by my efforts to reach out to youth— youth who responded to love and genuine interest in them.
It was later revealed there'd been an organized effort, a whispering campaign by some of the key pastors in town, against Riverside. I didn't believe it at first, it all seemed just way too Footloose to be taken seriously: the notion of grown men being so insecure and so unhinged by a group of kids having supervised, clean fun seemed unfathomable. In fact, my respect for the film Footloose (if not for Kevin Bacon) increased exponentially as a result of my Riverside experience. Black churches here are not organized for ministry. They are organized for programs— the stupidest so far: Singing Pastors Day (not making this up). But no room for Riverside. Not one dime to teen kids.
These people came after Riverside with guns blazing. The music. The hair. The excitement of all of these young people, and they controlled none of it and benefited (financially, anyway) from none of it. Some of these young singers and musicians were key people they demanded in place for Big Hat Annual Day or whatever other stunningly stupid unreligious event was next on their church calendar. In fact, I've never seen a group of people who purport to follow Christ behave in so un-Christ-like fashion in my life. So much so that I wrote a song about it, based on the stoning of Saint Stephen in the seventh chapter of the Acts of The Apostles. All we were doing was singing and enjoying ourselves, which infuriated black church folk, with their 1965 mentality, to the point where vicious rumors were actively spread (at the same time: that I was a homosexual and that I was sleeping with my teenage girls. I told them to make up their minds, I couldn't possibly be both).
The greater challenge, however, was the community they all belonged to did not support them. We were outcasts. Doors to black churches were universally shut to the group, and gossip abounded about how corrupt we were. Worse: the systemic failure of black youth ministry here had infected most of these teens like a virus. I was fighting not only the political nonsense of the Old Boys Pastors’ Club here, I was fighting the infection of apostasy within the group itself.
I also should have known better: teens are kids. They are beginning to look like adults, but their little meager brains are still those of children. Expecting them to fully appreciate the enormous sacrifice the adults were making to make Riverside happen was a wrong expectation on my part. The kids were only as committed as the group’s “cool factor.” Sacrifice was not part of their expectation, so when Pastor Houston’s church ultimately discovered us, creating enormous problems for him and for us (the church leadership literally demanded the church be empty and shuddered on our rehearsal night. That's the way it had always been and that was the way they liked it), the dedication of the teens simply did not stand up to the challenges. Still, no black pastor would support us or would simply provide us a place to rehearse.
All About Noah
The Riverside kids are, of course, all grown and most have
families of their own now, living here and across the country. I
frequently think of doing this again but find no ally among the
pastors. It’s a different bunch now, God has called several
pastors home and removed several others, but the sad and
shocking mindset lingers. Youth ministry among black churches
here continues to be Noah And The Ark, ignoring the 24/7 warfare
going on against our youth. And, I imagine, anyone attempting to
challenge that sad status quo will continue to be shouted down,
voted out or dismissed by the kindly out-of touch or
well-informed cowards pastoring churches here.
As the song from this rehearsal clip suggests, Sumbodisgunagitmad—from the 7th Chapter of the Acts of The Apostles, where Stephen is stoned for speaking the truth. This is Colorado Springs. Sadly, it may also be your town, too.
Christopher J. Priest