Crossing the Widest River in the U.S. Without a Life Vest
Life is governed by rules. By just getting up each morning, there are many rules/laws that we follow each day without even realizing. The normal routine is laden with laws and social norms: choosing appropriate clothing, abiding by traffic laws, using proper etiquette, etc. Add on top of this, deadlines, guidelines, protocols, and procedures and you may start to feel that the actual things we get to choose are few and far between.
If you are anything like me, just keeping up with the status quo for the day is an accomplishment. I go through each day checking things off my list while trying my best not to rock any boats. I’ve actually grown to like this. Why? It’s comfortable, it’s under the radar, and it’s easy. Don’t believe me…wear pajamas to work next time you have an important meeting and see where that gets you.
So if playing by the rule book yields us a pretty easy existence, why should we ever venture outside? A very good question and one that I struggle with constantly. Hence, today’s topic of discussion.
As some of you may know, Joe and I run a youth group at our church in Paterson, NJ. For those unfamiliar with Paterson, it is a city packed with broken dreams stuck in the glory of ‘remember when.’ Fifty years ago, Paterson was a booming town and an industry leader in the silk and paper industries, but now Paterson is associated with gangs, drugs, violence and other problems that plague low income communities.
Through dealing with the group, we’ve had our struggles and our fair share of up’s and down’s. Being able to adapt to our group, at times has its challenges. The struggles are not unlike the ones I’ve encountered while working with incarcerated folks. We have kids being approached by gangs, struggling in school, in compromising home situations, and growing up well before their time. But on top of these challenges, we deal with raging teenage hormones- just to keep life interesting. I often joke that our work as youth leaders boils down to two skills- firefighting and negotiation- and sometimes I am just too tired to want to do either.
Hence when the opportunity to take our kids to a classical music concert in the neighboring community of Ridgewood on a Sunday afternoon came about, I was a little skeptical. Getting these guys to sit through church without being disruptive is a major feat. One in which we’ve only accomplished a couple of times. How was I supposed to take them to a socially refined event?
Paterson and Ridgewood are divided by the Passaic River, which some have come to know as the widest river in the U.S. The reason for this phrase has nothing to do with distance, rather the economic despair between the regions. Ridgewood couldn’t be more opposite to Paterson. While Paterson has its struggles, Ridgewood has its assets: a vibrant place filled with wealth and professional people known for its great school system, restaurants and shopping district. The two communities have little (if any) interaction with one another.
Venturing with our group across the Passaic River, was a big risk. To be honest, we really didn’t know how this would work. Many of our kids have never crossed the cultural divide let alone sat through the classical pieces of Beethoven and Brahms. We didn’t want to embarrass the folks that kindly offered the opportunity. We also didn’t want the audience to be disrupted further fueling stereotypes that some hold about Paterson and its inhabitants.
But knowing this, we decided to take the chance because the risk outweighed the status quo. Giving the children an opportunity to experience life from the other side, if only for a few hours, was something we had to do.
Not only were our children perfectly behaved, but they enjoyed the experience- the entire experience. We started out with eleven wide-eyed kids running up to the balcony looking over at the beauty of the church. They were especially fixated on the television monitors throughout the facility. As we sat down, one of our teens whispered, “Maria, do you see all those TV’s? This church is TIGHT.”
We had a little chatter before the concert and had to deliver a couple of ‘behave’ eyes, but once the music started, everything stopped including behavior issues. The kids were silent listening to the presenter deliver anecdotes about the composers then enjoyed the tunes that followed. Throughout the concert I watched the youngest in our group, an 8 year old who struggles in school, bop his head and get lost in the music. After the last song, I walked (actually ran) with him to the lobby reception. When I told him that him to slow down and wait for me, he looked up and said, “I have to go and meet those musicians.”
I realized, at that point, it was more important for me to run than for him to slow down. Not only did our young friend get his program signed by every musician, but he spent one-on-one time getting some private xylophone lessons and then delivered an impromptu a concert of his own. I videoed this on my phone and he asked after, “Ms. Maria, can I watch my video?”
As he watched, I could see the pride in his eyes. He was so excited to see what he had just created and so was I. After the kids were all dropped off, Joe and I debriefed. We not only agreed that this was a huge success, but we agreed that the risk was 120% worthwhile. So I believe it is safe to say that going outside the normal status quo is something that we will continue to challenge ourselves to do. I invite you to reflect this week on how you might be able to do the same in your life. If you feel so inclined, share an idea below!