The Rev. Lois McCullen Parr has overseen Broadway United Methodist Church since August 2009. Along with the Rev. Vernice Thorn and volunteer Z Williams, Parr coordinates the church's twice-monthly Youth Lounge, an LGBTQ-affirming space for young people in Lakeview.
Parr recently sat down with Windy City Times to discuss youth programming, theological obligations and the value of volunteers.
Windy City Times: You've called your work with the Youth Lounge an extension of your spiritual mission. What do you mean by that?
Lois Parr: For me, the word 'worship' has a broader definition than just an hour on Sunday morning.
When we started [the lounge], we were specific to say: It's up to the youth to initiate relationships. At the first lounge, I didn't know anybody's name. And I thought: For young people to come in here and have this white 50-year-old woman say, 'Let's have a conversation. I want to know you,' is not loving. Not really. It's not meeting somebody where they are, which is, 'I need space.'
Now I know the names and stories of 20-odd regulars. Some of them would tell you they were here a long time before they knew I was a pastor [laughs]which is not a bad thing. These youth are, for good reason, suspicious of the church. Our hope is to redefine churchnot by preaching about God or Jesus, or anything like that, but to be faith in action.
Z [Williams] has termed that our 'love work,' and I think that's accurate.
WCT: What does it take to host one Youth Lounge? [The lounge operates on second and fourth Saturdays, from 4:30-8 p.m.]
LP: We like to have at least 10 volunteers. Some of us will come for setup at noon and stay until 9 p.m. cleanup. That's tiring. A couple of us are preachers the next day, and that's really hard. You need to have energy to be here because the young people have energy.
WCT: What does it cost each week?
LP: We benefit from great in-kind giving. Youth Lounge is not a separate entity, which means that everythingthe space, utilities, toilet paper, paper towels, kitchen, water, bathroomsis [covered by] Broadway United Methodist. If we were to add that up or rent a space, it would be a pretty big expense.
Another built-in cost-saver for us is that we operate entirely with volunteers. We're the cleanup crew, and if the toilet is stopped uplike it was this weekwe're the plumber. That's just a huge number of volunteer hours committed to making it happen.
And all of our meals are donated. [Youth Lounge feeds 50-70 each week.] We are a congregation of about 130 people, and every two weeks, we have a sign-up list … . I'm always astonished at how much it is. Individuals bring a bag of onions, two boxes of spaghetti, ground beef, whatever … and our [volunteer] cooks put it together. We do have a kitchen here, but it's not a big kitchen. I feel like our chief cook is a miracle worker.
WCT: So, is it accurate to say that you don't spend a lot of money? It all boils down to donations and volunteers.
LP: That's what makes it. Totally.
WCT: Theoretically, if another group had the space and volunteers, it'd be pretty easy to replicate the Youth Lounge, right?
LP: Right. We've dreamed about replicating it on the South and West Sides.
WCT: Why hasn't anyone else done it?
LP: The way we operate is, some people would say, risky. We don't have rules published at the door. We don't make people show us an ID or leave their bags anywhere. Some people would say: You're asking for trouble.
That's not been our experience. When you treat people with love and respect, they respond, and they rise to the occasion.
We've had 56 Youth Lounges so far, and we've probably had about six incidents. Six! Ain't nobody else got that record. Six! We don't have any guards at the door. Sometimes there's an escalated moment because somebody calls someone else a bitch, and it gets out of hand. People are living so precariously that it's easy to react in a hurry. But six incidents tells me that it makes a difference when you respect the youth.
WCT: Can you tell us the 'hole in the wall' story?
LP: We had an incident about a year ago where a fight suddenly broke out. People were horsing around, and in a flash, one person shoved another into the drywall downstairs; the guy went straight through the wall.
We decided: Let's not fix it. At the next Youth Lounge, we sat down with the young people and asked them what to do.
Several said, 'Can we help fix it? We'd like to help fix it.' [At the church,] we have an annual event called Hanging of the Greens, where we decorate for Christmas, so we decided to have the young people come. There were more youth than we needed for the wall, so they started to decorate with the congregation. The young people really took ownership of the space they called 'home.'
But I'll repeat: 56 lounges, six incidents. I think not everybody is willing to operate that way. I think for some people, it's too scary. You have to trust yourself to be okay in the space if it feels hairy. And I think you have to trust that the young people ultimately aren't interested in doing harm.
WCT: Some people might hear that wall story and worry about the financial risks associated with creating a similar program.
LP: Honestly, I don't think it's about that. I don't think it's about a financial risk, or 'Does our insurance cover it?' I think it's about people's emotional response to groups of young Black people. This is going to sound harsh, but I think some people are just scared. There are stories told of violence and destruction here in Boystown, but the youth here show respect. Because I give respect.
WCT: You train your volunteers in asset-based language. Can you tell us about that?
LP: It's how we talk and think about our young people, who come in with a lot of energy. This goes back to Take Back Boystown. Let's say a young Black man comes in the door, and he seems really angry. So, what happens if I don't label that as anger? What happens if I say: A passionate young man has just come in the door? That changes how we think about him.
That's the difference between giving and feeling sorry for somebody, versus giving to be in relationship with somebody. It's the difference between pity and compassion.
At the end of the nightespecially in winter when it's cold out[the volunteers] would all just sit around and mope. So we couldn't even give thanks for having spent four very successful hours with these young people because we were sad that we can't do more. Sometimes volunteers would say, 'I really just feel so sorry for them. I don't know where they're going to sleep.'
It's easy to get burnt out as a volunteer. So, how do we transform our thinking to say, 'I don't feel sorry for these young people. They have enormous resiliency and assets.' How do we claim the gifts we see in these young people and affirm them, rather than have this sense of separation?
WCT: How have neighbors reacted to the Lounge?
LP: Our first year, we kept intentionally quite a low profile. At our one-year anniversary, we sent a note to the neighbors and invited them to be involved. Most people were really positive, but one person was really, really ugly and left heinous, hateful messages on my voicemail.
And then the summer came, and Take Back Boystown happened. Somebody made an anonymous flyer claiming we directly support prostitution, drug dealing and violence in Lakeview. That's an absurd thing for anybody to say. Our reputation as Broadway Church is pretty well known, so peopleincluding some of the mediaresponded supporting us.
WCT: Were there any repercussions?
LP: There was a short period of time that same summer, where the young people were really comfortable here and started sleeping on the patio. Our initial response was, 'We love you, you're safe here, you can stay there.' They got harassed, and we got some ugliness from neighbors. We had to turn the youth away. The truth is: It would jeopardize the Youth Lounge, which we weren't willing to do. We wish we had a shelter, but we don't.
At that time, it felt like: Gee, the neighbors are really breathing down on us. But the truth is: It wasn't the neighbors. It was a couple people. And they were loud.
The summer of 2011 was very tough. In contrast, this summer was a very positive experience.
WCT: Your congregation is committed to an anti-racism work. How does that play out in Lakeview?
LP: We know that a lot of the young people of color who come to Lakeview as a place where they can be safe, experience racism. We also know that young people who are survivors can get into conflict.
This is a social and philosophical, and I suppose political, comment. When a young Black man on the street, who, with his friends or alone, has been spit on, yelled at, had the police called about him, had a false arrest, has been questioned or searched by the policeor just been told be passersby, 'This is not your part of town. Get out of here. You're a hoodlum.'to me, that is institutional and cultural violence.
So when young people walking down the street respond in anger, I do not personally believe they're initiating violence. They're responding to the violence of racism that's already been perpetuated on them.
Every day, people of color are negotiating the spaces they walk into, and white people don't have to. We are culpable as a culture, as a society, as a neighborhood. For us to ever say that young people who might do a desperate thing or start a fight are initiating anything is false. It's just false.
We need to examine our role in the social construct that makes it possible for people to not have a place to sleep or get a meal. It's your work as a citizen, as a human being, to look at how you participate in systems that create an environment where a 17-year-old Black kid might throw a punch. Why? If I talk to that kid, I can hear a lot of good reasons why he's angry.
[ Next week, Beyond Boystown. Follow Windy City Times on a trip to 75th and Halsted, learn more about Youth Pride Services, and see how Chicago stacks up nationally.
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