It was my first year in urban ministry, my first acquaintance with delinquent teenagers, a northerner in my initial exposure to southern culture. But I was 28, called and confident. Relationships had always come easy for me. A quick smile, a friendly word, a sincere expression — I had little doubt that I would do just fine in my new work, given some time to build friendships. Meet kids on their own turf. Find out what their interests are. Plan adventures that capture their imagination. Build trust. Forge relationships. Young hearts hardened by abuse and neglect will begin to soften. Teachable moments can have life-changing impact. I was eager to begin.
Early on I discovered that inner-city boys were fascinated with guns. I knew something about guns. I grew up in a semi-rural, mid-western environment where guns were common, where the first day of hunting season was an excused absence from school. I had brought a small arsenal with me when I moved to Georgia. It was a perfect connecting point with my new friends.
Before I took these unpredictable teenagers out to the country for target practice, however, it was clear in my mind they would first need some basic firearm safety instruction. The best organization for such training was the National Rifle Association (NRA). I had been a member several years earlier so I looked up a contact number of a north Georgia club that had their own firing range. The club president seemed quite pleased at the thought of a dozen new junior members joining up and offered to set up a day of training for the boys. We were on!
I may have neglected to tell the club president that my group all had juvenile records and that they were black. That may have accounted for the puzzled expressions on the faces of the volunteer instructors who were waiting for us when our van pulled into their camp. The club members, some in hunting attire, others in para-military uniforms, exchanges quick glances and muffled comments as the boys piled out of the van and surveyed the strange turf. Had I been more aware of current race relations in the South, especially the rural South, I might have been intimidated by the uncomfortable tension of the moment. But I was naÃ¯ve. So I barged ahead with friendly introductions, explained my program to the men, told them how important I felt it was that these young men developed a healthy respect for firearms, said the best place I knew to learn this was the NRA. Cold stares softened and heads began to nod. Soon each boy was teamed up with a coach, classroom instructions began, practical demonstrations were given, and — most exciting of all — live firing on the target range! It turned out to be a great day, one all of us would long remember (especially the redneck veteran NRA members who were responsible for signing up the latest junior members!).
Had I been aware of the emotionally charged racial and political implications of such an encounter I would have stayed far clear. It could have gotten ugly. I could have lost in a moment what hard earned credibility I was gaining with my new friends. Worse, it could have further enflamed the racial hostility that smoldered not far beneath the surface. But I did not know. I was from the North, largely oblivious to the long entrenched racism of my new culture. And to me, the NRA was a wholesome outdoorsmen’s organization that supported gun safety and wildlife conservation, not a right-wing lobbying force promoting the proliferation of assault weapons. And because I did not know these things, I blundered ahead with my smile, my optimism, my good intentions. And amazingly some good results actually happened.
Twenty years later I reconnected with one of those kids, Willie Scott, who had just been released from prison on a drug conviction. As we reminisced about the adventures we had together when he was a kid, Willy produced from his wallet a faded, tattered Polaroid photo of him proudly holding up a squirrel he had shot on one of our hunting trips. A treasured memory preserved for a lifetime. Willie may not have stayed out of trouble but at least he never shot anyone (as far as I know!).
This is not a justification for being ill-prepared. Nor am I advocating a theology that everything will turn out right if our intentions are noble. Awareness of the culture, knowledge of historic and present realities, familiarity with the language and values — these are hardly insignificant matters for effective cross-cultural ministry. What I am admitting, however, is that if we were aware of all the potential pitfalls, if we understood all the risks, if we waited until the way ahead was safe and predictable, we probably would never embark on the journey. Urban ministry (like any cross-cultural ministry, I suppose) is fraught with danger. It’s like walking into a minefield. We don’t know where explosives are buried or when one will blow up in our face. All of the careful preparation in the world cannot prevent missteps, sometimes with disastrous results.
Naïveté is a gift, a protective emotional shield that gives us the courage to walk into uncharted territory oblivious to the unknown dangers that may lurk around us. It affords us a sense of confidence, albeit unwarranted, that our good intentions will ultimately carry the day. And often they do! Innocence can be disarming. And if it is twinned with humility and an eagerness to learn, it can win over the hearts of would-be adversaries. “Be wise as serpents,” our Teacher said, “and innocent as doves.”