Many Christians have great hearts. They love people, especially young people. They want to point them to Christ and make a positive difference in their lives. They want to make a positive impact on urban environments that are killing our young people or emotionally breaking those who manage to survive.
Often these well meaning Christians head into urban environments with absolutely no real information about what life can be like. Or their perceptions are based on what they have seen on the evening news or some television drama. In reality, life can be just as different from one urban child to the next as it is from one suburban child to the next. Unfortunately though, not knowing some of the basic issues in urban life can mean volunteers waste a lot of unnecessary time and money through trial and error. They can spend way too much time reinventing the wheel. They can even make things much worse for the children they are trying to help by making “rookie” mistakes.
Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun by Geoffrey Canada should be a must read for anyone wanting to volunteer or work with kids and teens in an urban environment. Canada runs a program in Harlem (NYC), that from everything I can read is as much of a success story as one can hope for in one of the toughest areas in America. In fact, many credit his program with creating a rejuvenation of about a 100 block area in that part of Manhattan.
Unlike many books trying to educate others about something, this one is extremely interesting. Canada easily weaves his personal life story growing up in the South Bronx of the 1960’s with his current work and the lessons he has learned while trying to help kids in urban environments. Even when I lived in NYC several decades later, the South Bronx was one of the few areas that frightened me. (Which is saying a lot, since some of the bad events recounted about the early days of his program literally happened while I lived two blocks away!) Canada grew up on the streets learning the lessons of his block and then the South Bronx itself. He even takes pains to explain how some of those lessons have shifted over the years as guns and drugs became more common.
Canada shares practical insight any volunteer can easily translate to their work. Some concepts are general, while others will help you know what questions to ask the kids with whom you volunteer. He gives small glimpses into what he has done in Harlem that has worked. He even shares the mistakes he has made along the way, saving the reader from repeating them.
At points, the book will break your heart. In other places, you can feel the hope Canada has for the possibilities of real meaningful change. Although Canada is a Christian and I have heard him speak on the subject, he is a bit limited in incorporating God into his program and this book. It is there in subtle ways, but I am guessing in NYC and with his funding streams, he has felt the need to keep his faith a little more low key.
Which is really my only challenge to him. I believe if he could incorporate God and Christianity in strong, meaningful ways it would help his program be even more successful. I would imagine with a little creativity, they could replace any funding they might lose. I firmly believe (and strongly suspect he does as well) that only with God’s help can the real, permanent, meaningful change he wants be possible.
In the meantime, he has a lot to offer your personal ministry. Read this book. Highlight it. Learn from it. Then go out and make a difference by being well informed and pointing those young people to God!
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