This past week as part of the Urban Studies residency I had the opportunity to spend an intense week with a group of talented, highly motivated graduate students preparing to work in urban communities across North America. However, my most impressive encounter was not with a student but with a grandmother in West Philadelphia who spoke to some of my students about her ministry with young people in her community. This woman, who I will call Clara, moved into the neighborhood from her suburban home and decided that instead living in fear of the young people on her block, she would open her home to her grandson and his friends to teach them some basic life skills such as cooking and maintaining a home. Every week she repeats the act with a widening group of teenagers.
She sees her effort as a contribution to the quality of life in her neighborhood. On that same day my students (who were walking the neighborhood looking for positive signs of God’s activity in the community) met three other senior citizens who likewise had decided to reach out to the young people on their block. They also heard from a 51 year old father who every Friday night brings together 20 adolescents just to talk about the struggles in their lives. What we saw were elders who decided that instead of complaining about young people, they would step up to offer their services as elders, mentors and caregivers.
Contrast this with efforts by many elders to put distance from themselves and the younger generation. Not far from my suburban home, there is a gated community for people 55 and older; the homes start in the $350,000 and no children are allowed to reside in the community. Senior living communities dot the area. In this same area there is a taxpayer group again made up of the community’s older citizens who fight every effort by the school board to raise revenue for the schools, even though our district has the lowest tax rate in the county. So I find it quite striking that Clara and the others I met this week decided to open their lives to young people rather than shut them out. No doubt there are seniors like Clara in my community and elsewhere who reach out to young people in their own way, but unfortunately there are far too few.
While it is easy for those of us who are older to shake our heads at the lack of care and concern in the younger generation, what is needed is for many of us to step out like Clara and open their lives and their homes to them. We talk about the aimlessness of kids, but are we willing to serve as mentors, guides and friends to these young folks whose lives may be shattered? When parents can’t or won’t serve that role, where are the elders who are willing to step in and love kids in spite of their faults, attitudes and craziness?
Thank you Clara, for reminding all of us, that it is never too late, nor are we ever too old, to provide young folks with the guidance and love they so desperately crave.