Anyone can fake independence, as long as the infrastructure holds up and the checks keep coming.  –Janie B. Cheaney

It’s easy to be independent when you’ve got money. But to be independent when you haven’t got a thing- that’s the Lord’s test.  -Mahalia Jackson

Anyone can tell you about the detrimental effect of poverty on families. Some may even be able to articulate the downward spiral generational poverty creates for the children being raised in environments lacking in nutrition and proper nurturing, and living under the threat of constant danger. It is easy for those of us on the outside to make quick, dismissal judgments on the parents and their lack of motivation and seemingly lack of care for their children. Despite our sympathy for these poor kids, we often fail to genuinely realize that without significant intervention, they will likely grow up to become just like the parents who are judged today. Studies indicate that children of low social economic status are more likely to underperform in school and become involved in delinquent behaviors such as drug use and sexual promiscuity. It is also well known that children raised in safe, caring, and stable environments have the greatest chance of success. So how do you bridge the gap and break the negative cycle of poverty? It is a daunting task that requires man power that just doesn’t realistically exist, even with volunteers of the biggest hearts and the best intentions. However, one program has found a way to gather workers right from the communities and neighborhoods that need the most help. The program is based on the simple but, in this case, profound idea of mentoring.

Julie O’Donnell, Elizabeth Michalak, and Ellen Ames present a study on inner-city mentoring in an article entitled: “Inner-City Youths Helping Children: After-School Programs to Promote Bonding and Reduce Risk.” The study identifies all the typical risk factors involved with inner-city neighborhoods in poverty, but they focus on the problems of peer bonding among friends who are involved in anti-social behaviors and therefore become negative influences. Rather than simply educating children about the risk of negative behaviors, the program involves collaboration between the youth, their families, schools and agencies within the community. It is based on the Social Development Model which “emphasizes bonding as a key protective factor in children’s resistance to problem behaviors.” This model theorizes that “Bonding is a sense of belonging…once children feel bonded to a social unit; they want to live according to its standards and norms.” Recognizing the strong influence of peer bonding, proponents of the Social Development Model screened older youth, who exhibited pro-social behavior, from the community and trained them to be mentors in after-school programs to younger children from the same community. Because mentors shared the same risk factors of the children they were helping, they received extensive training and support networks. They were also paid and they received consistent rewards and praise for their involvement in the program, which is called The Collaborative After-school Prevention Program. Mentors were assigned a group of no more than seven children, and while they focused primarily on social skills development, they also provided practical help with homework. Even though it was not required of them, most mentors became involved in other community activities like assisting in coaching sports teams, street clean up, and rebuilding community homes. In addition, more than 50 percent of mentors went on to college after graduating high school. And what about the younger children who were the focus of the program? They improved their study habits, stayed more focused on their homework, and improved their social skills. Equally important, it provided a safe place to be and kept them off the streets. As one mentor put it, “It gives them another place to be children. Out in the streets they can’t be children; they have to be part of the hood. They know how to load a gun before they know how to tie their shoes.” Perhaps the most successful result of the program was that the children also became bonded to the mentors and ultimately to the “pro-social units and began to internalize their standards for pro-social behavior. These protective factors should reduce problem behaviors,” which was the main goal of the Social Development Model.

In addition to the successful results of the program, research supports their findings. Studies show that children from low social economic status are at greater risk for many developmental problems. Often parents simply can’t be there for their children because they are forced to work extra hours to make ends meet, or they simply don’t have the emotional or mental abilities to care for their children. Kids who could otherwise be spending hours in front of the television or, worse, be out on the streets getting exposed to dangerous situations of drug use and possible violence, are in a safe environment learning both social and study skills. Another factor to consider, according to Kelvin Seifert and Robert Hoffnung in their book Child and Adolescent Development, families of low social economic status run a greater risk of child abuse (329). The emphasis on the bonding between mentors and the children in their groups would provide a safe place for a child to express his/her concerns to a trusted role-model; who could identify the problem and report it to the program directors. They also state that children from neighborhoods prone to violence tend to adopt highly aggressive behavior modeled by their peers (422); this program shows children, through their mentors, that they can make choices that result in positive consequences. Aside from family influences, children learn most of their social behavior from peers of their own age as well as a few years older (415).  This program offers children the ability to learn positive behaviors from older kids in their communities. The mentors have a higher chance of relating to their group members because they have shared common experiences and are working to overcome the same issues. Thus, the Social Development Model not only has proven results from its program, but the research also supports its effectiveness.

For those who take the time to implement it, a program like this could produce positive results for all members of the community. While students of both peer groups obviously benefit the most from this program with their new social and academic skills, and with the new friendships which will undoubtedly last for many years, teachers have a significant reason to invest their time in the program in any ways available. Students who go through the mentoring program will become more compliant and not only cause fewer disruptions, but with the training they receive, they will likely become positive peer role-models within their classes. These students, who may otherwise neglect homework, would receive regular help with it which would increase their ability and confidence in the classroom, and also result in better test scores for the teacher and school in general. Students and teachers are not the only ones who benefit; parents would have the confidence of knowing their children are in a safe place for at least a few hours a week. As their children increase in social skills, they will bring their new understandings of relationship to the home, and perhaps bring positive changes to the whole environment. The program could also identify areas of specific needs in the families, and point them in a direction to receive resources and help they otherwise might have been ignorant of. This program, if it is given the proper resources and funding, benefits the entire community.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem facing a program like this is getting the whole community involved: “The Collaborative After-school Program was a partnership among the YMCA, three elementary schools and one middle school, the department of social work at an urban university, a church, a child guidance center, an art museum, and the county probation department” (O’Donnell). That is a lot of support and a lot of collaboration. The task of gaining the support needed among local community centers is daunting in of itself, let alone coordinating and working together to make the program affective. I think it is possible to make it work; however, and very much worth the effort. This program brings together a vision I’ve been developing within myself for a few years now. I find myself disappointed and disillusioned by public school’s lack of ability to truly help out these neglected and abused children. We simply allow them to disrupt the educational process until they either shape up, or we ship them out, but there is no real help and evident care for them. On the other hand, I volunteer for an inner-city youth ministry at my church where we mostly just go and play with kids. While there is significant bonding going on, and I’ve seen very positive changes in many kids, we tend lose them in adolescence, especially the boys. A program like this would offer purpose for the older kids and give them a reason stay involved. I don’t know the best steps to take from here, but this article offers the direction I’ve been looking for in my desire to help out poor families in practical and lasting ways. I definitely plan to research this topic further.

Peter L Richardson
11/25/2006

O’Donnell, Julie, Michalak, Elizabeth A., and Ellen B. Ames. “Inner-City Youths  Helping Children After-School Programs to Promote Bonding and Reduce Risk.” Social Work in Education 19.4 (1997): 231-241. Academic Search Premier. 21 November 2006. http://search.ebscohost.com.

Seifert, Kevin L., and Robert J. Hoffnung. Child and Adolescent Development 5th Ed. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston, 2000.

Alcoholics Anonymous

February 25, 2012

As soon as I walked through the door of the old brick church she saw me. “Oh my,” she stammered. “It’s so nice to see a familiar face here; although I never would have expected you!” I didn’t know how to respond, so I just smiled. It was a Saturday afternoon, 3:00. “Is this your first meeting?” She asked, “You look nervous.” I paused with an “Umm, yes, but…” and she cut me off: “Well don’t worry; everyone here accepts everyone. We’re all struggling with the same thing. That’s whole point of AA!” By this time, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was there on assignment. I was working on my masters in Guidance Counseling, and my professor required each of her students to observe a group meeting and write a paper on our observations. I decided to simply thank my greeter for her kindness, and we were called in so the meeting could get started.

Even though I knew the reality of this fact before I walked in, I could not help being surprised by the variety of people who were seated around the circle of the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. There were definitely all of the stereotypical alcoholics in the room, some were even obviously under the influence, but there were people from every walk of life: a young man right out of high school, a successful businessman, a teacher and even a sweet little old grandmother. Everyone seemed to be in a different place with their recovery, but there was an atmosphere of acceptance and support throughout the whole meeting.

When the meeting started off, however, I found it to be a little dry. The leader, an alcoholic herself, began by reading off AA’s mission statement and purpose, then someone read a summary of the twelve steps, and another volunteered to read something about the need for a higher power, all very formal and non-motivating, but what happened next changed the direction of the whole meeting. The woman leading asked if there were any new comers. I nervously shrunk in my seat because I didn’t want to admit why I was there. Fortunately a woman put up her hand and stated, “This is my first time at any meeting.” What happened next made it clear to me why the Alcoholics Anonymous Program has been so successful for so many people for so long. One at a time someone in the room welcomed her, told her how they understood where she was coming from, shared their experience of their first time, talked about what it took for them to overcome their addiction, and finally how their lives had changed for the better since they’ve made the commitment to stay sober. Their stories were very real, and therefore very touching and inspiring. While individuals were sharing, a list was going around for the ladies in the group to put their phone numbers on so the new member would have someone to call and talk to “whenever you need it, any time of the day or night.”

From my brief perspective, it seemed that the power behind these meetings was not really dependant on the program itself, but on the people in the program, their willingness to be transparent, their ability to accept anyone, regardless of their outward differences, and their determination to help each other stay focused on their goals. They obviously cared for each other and they shared a bond that goes beyond the common experience of addiction; it was a bond that is made through joining together in the struggles to overcome the addiction not just in themselves, but in anyone who is willing to make the change. A bond that reveals what any group of humans can accomplish when there is a willingness to accept one another for who they are, give each other support and encouragement during their weakness and trials, and celebrate together their successes and accomplishments, all while acknowledging a higher power with humility and submission. It was no surprise to me when I found out that the Twelve Steps are originally based on Biblical Principles handed down to us through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peter L Richardson
May, 2007

The Scramble for Africa

“And this [London] also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

In the late eighteenth century a drastic change took place in the continent of Africa, the results of which are still affecting the fate of African nations today. This change is known as the Scramble for Africa. Around 1880, Portugal, France and the British Empire all had a few colonies they possessed on “the Dark Continent,” but as new unified states began to rise up in Europe, there were more powers who became interested in taking a slice of the cake. With these new powers desiring to play a part in the game of empire, and the older powers feeling threatened, there was a mad scramble for countries to gather in as much land as possible and as quickly as possible. Within twenty years, nearly the entire African continent was possessed by European powers. As they stole, killed and destroyed to get a hold of more than their neighbors back home, these powers gave little thought and consideration to the varieties of peoples who already inhabited the land. It was truly a mad grab for more and more land. Among the powers grabbing for land, the British came out on top possessing most of the South, East and significant areas in the North, but there was an unusual player in this Imperial game who managed to receive nearly the whole center of Africa. King Leopold II of Belgium took control of the Congo and began a reign of terror that lasted at least forty years. The issue of Empire, focusing on the British, is taken on by Niall Ferguson in his book simply entitled Empire. Adam Hochschild quite literally and literarily takes on the abuses in the Congo in his book King Leopold’s Ghost. Both authors have a purpose in mind for their work and both are passionate about getting their point across, but they each come to very different conclusions about Empire.

Just the title of Hochschild’s book lets us know his thoughts that the colonization of Africa had devastating effects on the continent. Ferguson, however, is a little harder to get. It is clear that Ferguson thinks that empire is ultimately a good thing; well, at least the British Empire was a good thing. He spends a lot of time pointing out the economic and technological advances that are spurned on by imperialism; however, he isn’t shy about talking of the negative results of empire either, though he certainly downplays England‘s atrocities. To Ferguson, the atrocities of imperialism seem to be unfortunate side-effects of a generally good thing. His purpose is not to condemn imperialism, but to help us see what went wrong in the past so it can be done better in the future. Hochschild, rather, takes a purely humanitarian perspective; when an empire displaces and abuses millions of people, when it wipes out entire cultures, it doesn’t matter what the profits are; it is wrong. While King Leopold is considered an extremist in his abuses of African peoples, Hochschild consistently pauses in his story to point out that most of the other Europeans nations were not much better.

As Europeans began to take over more and more land, it became fashionable to justify themselves with the ideas that they were bringing enlightenment to races who have been behind in the development of society. They felt it was their duty to bring Christianity and Capitalism to these uncivilized nations. The only way to do it would be to take over their land, secure the profits and when these nations were able to fully embrace God and fully embrace “free trade,” the imperialists would pull out and have a gratefully indebted ally. According Hochschild these motives are hypocritical at best. He states, “Underlying much of Europe’s excitement was the hope that Africa would be a source of raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution…Expeditions quickened dramatically after prospectors discovered diamonds…and gold…in South Africa…But Europeans liked to think of themselves as having higher motives” (27). He leaves no one innocent, later he states that “Around the time the Germans were slaughtering Hereros, the world also was largely ignoring…[that] U.S. troops tortured prisoners, burned villages, killed 20,000 rebels, and saw 200,000 more Filipinos die of  war related hunger and disease. Britain came in for no international criticism for its killings of aborigines in Australia” (282). Hochschild reminds us that we all have skeletons in the closet. Ferguson does admit to, and does not at all support, the negative aspects of the empires in the Scramble for Africa. He is unusually critical of the actions of some of his ancestors. During his chapter on the Scramble, he says that  “even the most gilt-edged generals and proconsuls exhibited symptoms of what is best described as decadence” (222), yet he still holds that the Empire was a benefit to the peoples who it dominated. Speaking of the decline of the Empire, he later states “the Empire was dismantled not because it had oppressed subject peoples for centuries, but because it took up arms for just a few years against far more oppressive empires. It did the right thing, regardless of the cost. And that was why the…heir of Britain’s global power was not one of the evil empires…” (296).

Hochschild’s devil is clearly King Leopold II; he is portrayed as a swindling liar and a cunning thief. Unable to gain a colony through conquest or purchase, he works the national leaders of his day and more or less tricks them into handing him over a large chunk of land in the interest of humanitarianism and free trade. But rather than elevating the “noble savages” up to European standards he almost utterly destroyed them. Rather than abolishing the slave trade that still existed in the interior of Africa, he reduced entire tribes to slaves. The extent of abuses of the Europeans on the Africans in this book is equaled only by Hitler’s pursuit of the Jews. But at least Hitler was upfront about his intentions. Leopold is a man obsessed with dominion and riches. All the profit of the Congo went into his pocket, so that he could continue to seem “non-profit.” Though Leopold’s web of deceit and horror is intricate and complicated, Hochschild makes sure we know who his enemies and heroes are by the end of his book. Ferguson however, continues to remain ambiguous. Leopold’s British counterpart was definitely Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes also possessed an obsession for imperial dominance over the natives in South Africa and his first and main goal, though at least he was outspoken about it, was more land for more money. Ferguson is open about Rhodes’ greed, but he doesn’t seem to want to get involved in the gritty details that Hochschild devotes much of his book to. In fact, when Ferguson first introduces us to Rhodes it is hard not to notice a bit of admiration for him in his description; “He was at once business genius and imperial visionary; a robber baron, but also a mystic…He aspired to be more than a money maker. He dreamt of becoming an empire builder” (224). Though Rhodes destroyed entire people groups as he was “bestriding Africa” (224), he also brought civilization and capitalism. At least that was supposed to be the case.

Hochschild makes it clear through his book that Africans would have had no problem governing their land. He reminds us of their greater civilizations of old, and he spends a great deal of time on Roger Casement who declares that “Self government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from by another people than the right to life itself” (286). Ferguson does recognize the existence of African nations and the wrong done to them by the European powers, while commenting on the Berlin Conference in which European leaders met to decide the boundaries of their African colonies he states “the ‘existing rights’ of native rulers and their peoples were patently not what the [European leaders] had in mind” (237). But he was just stating the obvious. As stated before, Ferguson clearly is in favor of the Empire.

Colonial Africa 1914

Europeans justified their conquests over Africa with a long-term goal of creating free states governed with the principles of liberty that they used on their own native soils. The idea was to introduce Africans to a better way of life and lift them up. But what was the result? Hochschild tells us the somber history of Zaire, what used to be the Congo. After gaining political independence from Belgium, eventually an oppressive leader Joseph Mobutu rises to power and has proven to be almost as bad as Leopold himself. And what of Southern Africa? Still bearing the name of its colonial conqueror till as late as 1979, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe is bearing the fruit of colonization. The natives have decided they want their land back. Without going into the complicated web of detail that always exists with African issues, the white minority which owns the majority of land, are being driven out. The result is political and economic upheaval. An African man who has taken advantage of the free land says, “We are reclaiming our land. The British pushed us out, and we’re taking it back. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret the British coming…we would have still been in the Stone Age” (Godwin 105). So we have a “native” expressing gratefulness for technical advancement, but clearly expressing his rights to the land. This suggests there could have been a better way. Of the militant actions of President Mugabe another African, the Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarks that he is “almost a caricature of all the things people think black African leaders do. He seems to be wanting to make a cartoon of himself” (Godwin 113). Maybe the legacy European Imperialism left to Africa was not liberty and justice, maybe Africans, rather in reaction to submitting to abuse for centuries have learned to become the abuser. Is it possible that the fruit of the Empire has been what empire seems to be about? Land grabbing, political dominance and wealth seeking; never mind the cost.

Peter L Richardson
February 3, 2004

Ferguson, Niall. Empire, The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Lessons for Global Power.London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2002.

Godwin, Peter. “A Land Possessed” National Geographic Magazine. August 2003.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost, A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

*If you would like to help Africa click on this link: http://www.one.org/us/about/

Freedom Outreach: A ministry of caring relationships among friends in the city. Passion for Christ. Compassion for People. Period.

Playing in Riverside.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27

It all started with Rachel Coates: “You should volunteer for our Easter  Party.”

“But I don’t do little kids,” I said, “I’m called to teens and young adults.”

“Still, you should come and help. These kids are awesome.”

I felt the usual immediate satisfaction of serving God; after all, “it is better to give than to receive.” However, it was a slow progress for these kids to work their way into my heart. Because of a faithful few volunteers, a few of the kids who were at the party were actually regulars at our church service. It only took one time for us to meet before they would run up to me at church with joy and ask to sit with me during worship and to make me play with them after the service. Eventually, one of them asked, “How come you don’t play with us during the week?”

Freedom Outreach is an organization based at Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Volunteers from the church and community have the opportunity go into the projects of Wilmington, Delaware, including Riverside and Southbridge, once a week and play with the children in the neighborhood. The goal is to simply build relationship with the children on their turf, the places where they call home. Freedom Outreach also organizes bigger events like holiday parties held at the church, and Vacation Bible Schools and annual barbeques held in the neighborhoods. Once leaders in the organization build relationship with the children and their families, they are invited to a session at Camp Josiah in Port Jarvis, New York. The church partnerships with the camp and some members of the church sponsor individual children to help pay their way to camp, and the kids also help raise money for themselves through fundraiser like carwashes. One major goal of Freedom Outreach is to mentor the children until they are teens and then train them to become mentors themselves.

Building castles at Camp Josiah.

Becoming a regular volunteer for Freedom Outreach was pretty tough for me at first. The kids were tugging on my heart, but I had my own children to worry about, and I thought for sure with my busy schedule, the Lord would let me off the hook. But between the Lord and the kids working on me, I moved from just helping out with special events, to going up to play with the kids in their neighborhood on a weekly basis. God quickly began to bless me through it, but not in a way I expected. Between my job as a high school teacher, and working on my masters in an attempt to earn more income for the future, and helping to raise two boys as a single dad, life was full of stress. However, here was two hours a week I could just play with kids and not think about anything else. Instead of having one more thing on my schedule, playing with the kids in Riverside became a break that I looked forward to each week.

The kids have also kept me humble. It was hard to complain about American lower-middle-class frustrations when I got a weekly dose of the realities of poverty these kids face. Some have moms and dads in jail or on drugs or even both. Some have parents or guardians who are struggling to do their best for the kids they love, but they just can’t get ahead of their past mistakes. Either way, most of these kids have been exposed to, and even been victims of, the darkness of mankind’s soul way too early in life.

Because of the environment they live in, they can often be very challenging, but it is amazing to discover the childlike beauty that is still in action in even the most hardhearted of the children. When I see the wonder of imagination and the magic of their hearts at work in them, it enables me to have greater compassion for my at-risk students, only a few years older, when they act out in my classroom in anger and fear. I know these students once did not feel the need to smother the magic that is still hiding within them. When I see the courage these kids need to face life every day, it teaches me not to judge their adult counterparts who came to age living in the same fear and neglect. Despite the many disappointments these children experience, I can still see hope glimmering in their eyes, and after a time I have felt the genuine love that some of them have come to trust me with, and I came to realize what loving your neighbor truly means.

When I spend time in the city, John Wesley often echoes in my brain: “But for the grace of God, there go I.” For what is God’s grace to us were it not for the people he has sent into our lives to be his hands and feet and even his mouth? If more kids and even adults can learn there is a better way of life, a road to freedom that our God teaches us, the cycle of poverty can be broken in their families. Many Freedom Outreach kids are growing into mature children of God, and it is a blessed thing to be a witness of; however, many more still seem to slip through the cracks. It is hard for seed to take root in concrete and asphalt; however, when the seed is watered by love and truth from a caring person; the stone can erode and crumble into ground soft and tilled, and God can create miracles that cause roses to bloom.

If you would like more information regarding Freedom Outreach, or would like to support the ministry in anyway please go to:  http://www.vcfbarn.com/service/freedom-outreach/ 

Peter L Richardson
7/9/2010

The Village Neighborhood:

January 5, 2010

Angelic Humanity Manifest

The Village Neighborhood -Working together

The Village Neighborhood -Working together

“Truth reaches the mind most easily by the senses.”  -Father Paul Dobberstein

Guardian Angel Park-Before

Guardian Angel Park-Before

Years ago I found myself a newly married father at the ripe old age of 19. Scared, but determined to provide for my new family, I dropped out of college and began my journey into “the real world.” A friend of the family offered me a job through a laborers union in Philadelphia. A dead end job with what seemed like great pay at the time. I went from frolicking the tree laden campus of the University of Delaware to literally digging holes in the trash laden streets of Philly. Growing up in the shadow of Philadelphia, I had been to the city’s tourist attractions many times, but with this experience I got a first hand look at how depraved many parts of the city were. Houses crumbled around our work sites, discarded cars were strewn throughout the city, and bullet holes often decorated the buildings that managed to remain standing. The company I worked for had a contract with the city to dig up all the rotting gas and oil tanks buried in old gas stations and maintenance shops and replace them with environmentally safe tanks. I was on the crew that got to dig them out and dig up the contaminated soil. It was lovely work. In less than six months the company downsized and I welcomed the day I got laid off. I left without any desire to return to Philadelphia; it was years before I even returned as a tourist. After working construction for a few more years, I decided to try college again, so I enrolled at UD once again as a part-time student. I ended up taking a one-time-offered Art History class titled “American Art and the Religious Imagination.” It is easily one of the best classes I have ever taken. The grad student who was in complete creative control taught with passion, and he even required us to take field trips. One of the places we visited in North Philly was called “The Village Neighborhood.” It began in 1986 as a community outreach by Lily Yeh to clean up the park of a run down neighborhood and to use the materials of the city to create art that could bring a little beauty and color into an otherwise drab existence. Since then the project has grown throughout 260 blocks of the neighborhood. As I walked the streets of The Village Neighborhood, I was touched by more than the interesting urban artwork. I saw a people who were small in number developing a way that could transform a community with no hope to one that could produce a significant change in the lives of a significant amount of people. 

Guardian Angel Park -Angels

Guardian Angel Park -Angels

As we drove through the poverty stricken streets, I noticed most of the empty lots still had debris from the demolished buildings and a lot of trash built up from what some members of the community left lying around. Everything was rundown, falling apart, littered and graffitied. Kids played right on the streets with the trash and decaying architecture.  Some graffiti was more art rather than just tagging; I have always been intrigued by the amount of quality murals that decorate the various areas of Philadelphia. Every time we passed an interesting mural, I expected it to be the beginning of the Village; yet as we turned by Guardian Angel Park, I immediate realized why this was considered to be a sacred place. Two tall angels looming over the community painted on the side of a house send a definite message to onlookers that this place is protected. Whether the protection is from a deity or simple the strength of the community depends upon your faith, but a deeper look into these few blocks reveals more than fancy artwork and few cleaned up lots. The Guardian Angels overlook concrete children and animals playing beneath them. Each angel bears a sword and cradles a child to suggest that true safety needs more than outward strength, but also the intimacy and love that brings inward security and confidence. The abstract colors and shapes of the concrete creations are symbolic of the abstract and colorful life in the inner-city, and the concept of using tiles, bricks and concrete is brilliant for an area where vandalism and decay have been prevalent. As special and sacred as this place is, it does not feel at all out of place in the city. There is a comfortable flow from the surrounding city blocks to where the streets seem to grow into angels and children and concrete arms reaching up for joy in a dance of colored tiles with a backdrop of urban mysticism. 

Angel Alley

Angel Alley

Angel Alley is just as intriguing as the park. With warrior angels lined up from one end to the other, one can stroll down this alley with confidence. In the middle of the angels is a figure who must represent a deity, at least a man in charge, or perhaps he represents the community being protected. Of the angels that he stands between, one holds a book which might represent scripture, or it could symbolize the freedom that gaining an education can bring. The other holds a baby, perhaps a symbol of Christ, or just the comforting thought of having security in faith. The Village Neighborhood seeks to meld differences of religion together in order to achieve a sense of common unity. The wall opposite the angels displays a pattern of tiled squares checker-boarding triangles with smiling faces. They give the pedestrian a sense of welcome.

Meditation Park -Tree of Life

Meditation Park -Tree of Life

Meditation Park has a slightly different look with its stone ground and only one large circle seating place. Its surrounding walls only bear one image of the Tree of Life. In the Christian tradition the Tree of Life represents innocence, purity and eternity. However, as one sits and meditates in this surrounding area, it is easy to get the impression that this Tree not only represents new spiritual life, but also the growing and budding life of the community from the ruins of an at-risk neighborhood. That is exactly what the combination of artists, teachers, and community members have done here. In addition to the artsy remodeling of the exterior of the buildings and empty lots, they have also repaired abandoned buildings and transformed them into art and education centers. Joseph Joubert, a 19th century French philosopher, said, “He who has imagination without learning has wings and no feet.” The Village takes kids off the streets and offers them the foundation they need to help them accomplish whatever their dreams may be.

Ile Ife Park

Ile Ife Park

Ile Ife Park, however, is my favorite place in the community. The first to be conceived and created by Yeh, Ile Ife Park has a path through beautiful gardens, concrete chairs and couches (which are actually comfortable to sit in), and a group of concrete arms growing up from the ground and reaching into the sky. This stage is set against a mural displaying a large bird in flight signaling to anyone in the community who gathers there that they also can fly. I have learned that a key difference in those who are poverty-minded and prosperous-minded is the later like to surround themselves with objects of beauty and art (Eberle 104). Art and nature inspire the human soul to be creative and productive. I have also read about a doctor who worked in Harlem and lamented that the poor he served just needed something to break the cycle of poverty; he observed that even if he ended up on the street with no money and no housing, he still had his positive upbringing and education to enable him to get up again. Lily Yeh not only brought a community together to create external beauty, but she has started a movement that brings education and inspiration to the impoverished and gives them the opportunity to take responsibility for their neighborhood and their own lives as they learn and grow in confidence and self-esteem. This movement has grown from The Village Neighborhood in North Philly into the organization Barefoot Artists which replicates the success of The Village to impoverished communities all over the world.

Guardian Angel Park -Concrete Kids

Guardian Angel Park -Concrete Kids

Being guarded by angels, The Village Neighbor-hood truly is a sacred place. Does sacredness rest in the traditions of objects and ancient cathedrals and temples, or is it a matter of the heart? Is sacredness religion? If so, my religion teaches that, “a pure and faultless religion in the sight of God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in trouble” (James 1:27, Revised English Bible). When he was criticized for hanging out with people considered profane, Jesus replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick; I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17, Revised English Bible). Whatever your faith is, let’s break out of our traditions and start healing people. There might not be a program as interesting as The Village Neighborhood in your community, but there is always something you can do to contribute and help those who are in need. Perhaps you are called to start something on your own. My experience at The Village planted a seed in me, and eventually I got involved in my own church’s outreach to the projects of Wilmington, DE. Before our class left for the day, I was able to chat with a few kids who were finishing up pottery projects. They all said they loved their classes “except for the cleaning up.” These kids now have the experience of owning a sense of creativity and accomplishment; they have more tools to help them move past the limited expectations of poverty level children. As they grow older and move on with life, I’m sure they will each get a sense of awe and sacredness in their hearts when they think of their experience in The Village Neighborhood.

Lily Yeh -1986

Lily Yeh -1986

For more information check out the following websites:

                http://www.villagearts.org/index.htm

http://www.barefootartists.org/index.html

  • Eberle, Harold R. Developing a Prosperous Soul, v.1. Winepress Publishing. Yakima: 1997.
  • All scripture references are from The Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha.   
  • All pictures are from barefootartists.org.

Peter L Richardson
Spring 1999, revised Winter 2009