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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Who's Space Is It?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The other day there were these two kids hanging out in front of the church where I work. I was returning after a run down the street for coffee, and they were sitting on a planter on the patio outside the sanctuary: two boys, middle-school aged, with skateboards.

It's hardly uncommon. There's a middle school just down the street, and our wide parking lot and shady patio make for choice real estate for kids looking to hang out after school.

As I prepared to walk past them, I rehearsed in my head how I should approach them. We can't have skateboarders around for liability concerns, so one imperative was to chase them off with a chummy kind of tone. But they weren't actually riding their boards, so maybe, I thought, I should strike up a conversation with them. Find out their names. Invite them to our youth programs. Yes, reach out to them.

"What's up guys?" was my laissez-fair hook.

"Nothin'," they answered, looking toward the ground.

I was just steeling myself to make my youth minister pitch when one of them looked up and asked, as if it were a matter of pressing concern, "How are you?"

It kind of caught me off guard. All I could come up with in response was a perfectly adult, "I'm fine. How are you?"

They both smiled and replied that they were good, and I continued on inside. It's the kind of interaction that might take place between two adult strangers on any public street.

And that's what got me thinking.

Why wouldn't I greet these kids the same way I would greet someone in public? Why should there be some imperative to engage them in a conversation that will produce an invitation to church programs?

The difference between the conversation I envisioned and the conversation I got that afternoon is the difference between a conception of the church as private property used for programs that benefit the invited and a conception of the church as public property where nobody has to justify their presence.

It felt right and good to greet these kids like strangers and then to leave them alone, not challenging their right to be there by making them sit through a forced introduction aimed to grease a program pitch. It felt correct and maybe even holy to share the church space with them for that short time as if the space belonged to all of us, equally.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 4:05 PM

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