I met them in October 2019.
A bunch of grey and black hooded teenagers eyeing me warily through cigarette smoke from their vantage point perched on the stone vault in the graveyard. I’d park my car as close to them as the stone flags allowed me so that I could jump out and trill my ‘Hello, nice to see you!’ on my way into the Minster.
Oh how they glared! Who was this woman (and the others) who had come to disturb their peace?
Some afternoons I counted up to 35 of them hanging around the back of the church, lolling (I love that word), smoking, chatting, being there. There was something brilliantly ‘alt' about how they dressed, how they presented themselves. Sometimes adults would walk by and tut loudly. Mostly they ignored the noise and mess. The young people were as familiar and predictable as the gargoyles on the roof and dog poo on the path.
Then one afternoon I arrived to a few of them flipping half-drunk cola bottles onto the Lady Chapel roof. They were trying to see if they could make them land upright in the guttering.
Not really sure what I was planning I made my way purposefully towards them. A hush descended as I said calmly, ‘Pass me that bottle.’
I flipped it up into the air and (still can’t believe it) the bottle landed bottle-lid up in the guttering!
‘That’s what happens when God is on your side’! I declared as I walked away. But I felt silly nonetheless. These young people obviously had nowhere safe or kind to go, They were here every day, in the rain and the relentless wind that whips around the side of the church wall. They didn’t need my quips, they needed my vulnerability.
So I vowed to make it more about them. No banter. No games. Nothing to body-block the rejection if they didn’t want me to ‘youth worker’ them!
'Misfits' of the Minster
So over the weeks and months that passed I got to know their names. Sometimes they’d all ignore me. Sometimes a few would drop into the Minster to use the loo. Other members of the Minster team would chat with them. A few of the more curious young people even came to a few sessions of Alpha. Probably for the hot food, but they stayed and chatted. Their insights and ideas were incredible.
Then it got bitterly cold and I didn't see them for a while.
Then it was Christmas and they were around a lot and I wasn’t.
Then we sensed Spring and they young people came back. But so did COVID-19.
At first they were full of conspiracy theories. But I also knew a little more of their stories and living arrangements. ‘We’re all misfits,’ one of them told me, ‘That’s how we found each other.’
Some attended college. Most were newly kicked off their courses. Some preferred for the group to meet in the subway under the main road that cuts the city in half. But the most vocal liked the gravestones and fancy writing on the flags they sat on. Propped up against the side of the Minster, shielded from the world, it felt like theirs.
‘I know it’s yours’ I said one afternoon. ‘Much more yours than ours. We’ve only been here a few months. You’ve got this place in your blood. I just want you to know you’re welcome to come into the Minster too. We’ve got loos and drinks and under floor heating!’
They always had brilliant excuses for not coming in. Family Gaia or Wiccan connections. Phobia of high ceilings. Spooked by churches. Hatred of God. Fear of change.
But we chatted more. One afternoon they even jumped to grab the bin liner I brought out and motivated each other not only to chuck their own trash in, but also litter pick stuff in the graveyard that wasn’t theirs.
Then the virus took hold. They weren't interested in my pleas for social distancing and staying home. ‘This is home.’
Then yesterday I noticed a change. I had the back door of the Minster propped open so people could drop off donations for our pop-up food collection point, and ten of them shuffled in. Tired. Cold. And very, very scared. A few crying for elderly relatives they weren’t allowed to see. A few crying for themselves. One young person mid transition, afraid about being alone in their bedsit with no one to care for them if they got ill. Another unsure if their parent would want them to come home if they got ill. They’re all masters at being shady about the details, but I caught the drift of what I wasn’t being told – and it was a desperate picture. Hunger, homelessness, fear, loneliness.
Nowhere to go, no one to care, nothing to lose
These are the invisible, not yet adult but not protected like kids, fragile and challenging young people that as the virus hits will refuse to do what we want them to. They’ve got nowhere to go, no-one to care, and nothing to lose- and they’re going to be in the streets, bus stops, subways, parks and graveyards that the rest of us are vacating. In their minds they’re already socially isolated. There’s already a great ocean of distance between them and mainstream society (a chasm neatly filled with weed and shame). Many of them don’t have phones or access to technology. Their reliance on each other is as solid as it is fragile. Of course they'll be there for each other, until they’re not. Then they’re totally alone.
‘I’m not going anywhere. We’re,’ gesticulating to the church building, ‘not going anywhere.’ And I meant it. I mean it now as I write this at the beginning of a week that holds nothing familiar. How on earth are we as their church going to fulfil that promise if we get sick, have to stay at home, or are forced to stay at home?
In my most dramatic moments I used to worry that unless we proceeded with caution in our noble attempts to keep young people safe we’d get to a point in society where just chatting with a young person would be criminalised. Impossible right? Never happen.
But now that seems weirdly like a possibility. As of last night we’re effectively in ‘lockdown’ (although that word has not been used). Like you I will do all in my power to flatten the curve of this brutal virus. As Matt Haig says, this isn’t a war, it’s a virus. The best thing we can do is to stay home and not be the bomb.
Don’t be the bomb.
But knowing that there are young people in desperate need, huddled against the walls of a church both they and I call home…
I can't walk away. I don’t want to give up. I won’t let go, forget, abandon. But how? I’ll pray of course, and this will be a test of how powerful I think prayer can be.
No more normal: a new prayer
One amazing thing that has happened is that somehow these fearfully and wonderfully made young humans have leapt at my clunky efforts to name drop Jesus with them. Yesterday they seemed to want to talk about him.
’This place will be full of people once it’s open again,’ Josh* said.
‘I hope it’s full of you lot first.’ I said.
’I mean’ he went on, ‘people will find God won’t they, because they’ll be scared that he’s not real.’
‘Do you think God could be real?’ I asked.
‘I do in here,’ replied the girl whose family associations with the dark arts made her think voices would chase her out of the building if she came in.
We chatted a bit more about how this virus is making normal life impossible, and how even more impossible it is that the creator of a world where horrific things like COVID-19 mutate, would know and love us and want to be close to us.
While they drank their coffee (with me trying to enforce a 2m social distance rule and challenging them on the amount of sugars they take in their coffees, ‘Don’t you want to live long enough to be around for the next great pandemic?!’) I told them that once the doors are open again we’d have to have a party. They didn’t jump at that, which was a bit disappointing to be honest. But then maybe they don’t know just how great church parties can be!
As I ushered them out of the door, inwardly ranting at God for the irony of them voluntarily coming in on the very day we had to shut down our church-building, I found a new prayer forming in my heart. That each of these young people would be clothed in God’s light and God’s love. That his ferocious, holy love for the orphan, widowed, homeless, addicted, broken, invisible child would be known by them, and the rest of us.
And a new prayer for you and me formed. That as we wrestle with the reality of youth ministry in the age of contagion, as we heed the good advice to limit travel and non-essential human contact and as we truly trust these young people to the Father, we will grow in courage, generosity and tenacious, relentless, innovative ways to make Jesus known in a world we can’t imagine, let alone predict or control.
We’re on a frontline we could never have imagined even ten days ago.
Go well. Wherever that is, whatever the cost.
*not his real name