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Christian Hip-Hop Club Tempts Teens Off Mean Streets

  • Tom Banse

Hip hop is the soundtrack of urban street life. Nightclubs that play the music can be a magnet for trouble. But a Christian social service group is convinced it can co-opt hip hop and keep at-risk kids on the right path. Tom Banse reports from Tacoma, Washington.

Life is about making compromises. It's a struggle that dates to Biblical times. As the apostle Paul wrote in a letter to the Corinthians, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."

Today, that might explain why good Christians can end up operating a nightclub where teens dress in saggy pants and short skirts. The young people dance in sexually provocative fashion to deafening music. And they stay out past midnight, too. But if they're here, says the club's outgoing director Deanna Neidlinger, the teens are safe. The alternative could be running with street gangs.

Neidlinger says it was hard to entice kids to come to Christian youth events. '"The average kid on the corner would get a flyer and it would say 'Come to this church for a social.' They would laugh, rip it up and throw it on the ground. It just wouldn't happen."

So a youth outreach worker had the idea to start a downtown nightclub for teens. In 2004, the Christian aid group Club Friday to its domestic poverty relief efforts. The club plays hip-hop, a musical genre that adults frequently dislike because of the profane and sometimes violent lyrics.

Neidlinger defends the club's playlist. "It wouldn't make sense to reach out to the toughest kids who have been the least reached, the hardest served, with music that doesn't relate to their experience." However, the nightclub does play the radio versions of hip-hop hits, in which the cuss words have been edited out.

A community for those who choose it

18-year-old Dominique Lewis has found friends and community in the no smoking, no drinking nightclub crowd. He says it's a safe place to be. "You know, if you need somebody to vent to, we have mentors here. It is very comforting here. It is a home away from home. People say school is a home away from home. But it is not. School is a prison away from home."

Earlier this year, Lewis and his friend Sondra Mays helped some churches in a rural part of Washington state start a copycat Friday night club. Lewis was surprised that he didn't see any blacks in the crowd. "But the place was packed with Caucasians listening to the same music we listen to, dancing the same way we dance." Mays was surprised, too, but says it made her realize "we can go global with this. Yeah, we can go national with this."

Pushing for a prevention approach to gangs

World Vision helped these two teens and 15 others go national, flying them to Washington, DC to talk to their Senators and Congressmen. Mays says they urged the lawmakers to direct anti-gang spending to intervention and prevention instead of more jail time. "Get them off the streets. Give those people money so they can make flyers so they can get out there and get kids into their buildings. Help them, mentor them, tutor them." Club Friday is open after school on weekdays to provide some of those very services.

But it can't reach every wayward teen. "'This club is whacked [stupid]," sneers Mario Jones, hanging out with friends around the corner. "Ain't nothing but cops around here and only [ages] 16 to 21 let in. It's whacked."

American police, politicians and social workers are warning of a resurgence of gang activity in poor neighborhoods, not just in Tacoma, but also across the country. In response, police departments have created gang-suppression units and try to keep track of gang members on probation. Local lawmakers have established curfews for young people and promoted summer employment and other development programs. Faith-based groups hope their projects like Club Friday can add a positive, preventive component.

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