Perhaps the greatest joy attached to UYWI is the transformational relationships forged with 20,000 urban youth workers in many of America’s greatest cities. We rejoice today with Daniel Sanabria and Jack Redmond, two champions from Greater New York whose book God Belongs in My City releases today.
Danny is one of the graduates of UYWI’s first New York City Learning Community (2011). He also co-authored and co-presented the “We Got Next” student leader track at Reload NY/NJ’s New York City venue in January 2011. Jack Redmond has authored curriculum and taught nationally for Reload, and hosted the New Jersey venue for the 2011 Reload NY/NJ event.
Full disclosure: I have been privileged to be Danny’s friend for a decade or so, and we’re practically related by marriage as one of my former youth leaders is now his sister-in-law. Jack and I have been friends for years as well, and shared a transformational cohort experience with DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative. But personal affection aside, God Belongs in My City is one of the most exciting student-led prayer movements that I’ve experienced in my lifetime, which is why I agreed to write the book’s Foreword (republished with permission below).
Goliaths fall when adults like Saul get out of David’s way.
The biblical figure, David, was an untested teenager, a shepherd boy with no military training. Yet he simultaneously proved to be the only man among soldiers courageous enough to confront the giant, Goliath. For forty days, Goliath’s taunts had paralyzed Israel’s king and army with fear. Then David overheard the mockery, witnessed the cowardice of the adults around him, and was moved to action. King Saul reluctantly agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I first became gripped by the idea that youth can and must be empowered to lead as a thirteen-year-old on a weekend retreat. My youth pastor challenged one hundred or so teens to find a solitary place for Bible reading and prayer for an hour. Struggling to decide where to start, I remembered hearing that Timothy was a young guy when his mentor, Paul, wrote him a letter. So I read the letter start to finish, and what I found awakened something in me that changed me forever.
“Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example to the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12)
I was blown away. Whitney Houston was still relevant at the time, and her latest, greatest hit said I was the future, not the present! The idea that “youth are the future”—and, therefore, not particularly useful now—was echoed everywhere around me, especially in church. All the important people on Sunday mornings were fully grown. The people my age were segregated to the junior congregation with the junior Holy Spirit, supervised by a couple of adults crazy enough to lead us.
And here the Apostle Paul was challenging me (not just his protégé, Timothy) to let no one look down on me because I was young. To be an example to believers of all ages. To reject adult condescension and actually lead!
Every day since then, in one form or another, I’ve attempted to empower young people to lead change in their cultures and communities by cultivating their character and competence and then getting out of their way.
Twenty or so years later felt like déjà vu all over again. Rev. Dr. Raymond Rivera, founder and president of Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC) in the Bronx, believes students are essential to efforts to transform communities. In 2009, that conviction motivated LPAC to produce “Kickin’ It Old Skool,” the first student leadership conference in LPAC’s and my collective memory that was actually led by students. Paradoxically, so-called student leadership events typically involve adults teaching students, or adults teaching other adults, how to lead students. Rarely do adults voluntarily play a supporting role to students leading the event.
Kickin’ It stood in stark contrast to this tradition. LPAC empowered twelve student organizers from four New York City boroughs to defy the stereotype and design a leadership event that they and other students would lead, armed with a budget to pull it off. Sixty-eight of their peers gathered for the conference at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan on September 12, 2009, and 175 enjoyed the evening concert as well. Dr. Rivera’s message that day: “Share your story. Declare your future. Inspire other students. Remember, tomorrow needs you. Prepare for it today.”
Little did he know that two months later, three of the Kickin’ It student organizers would rally a dozen or so other students to coordinate God Belongs In My City (GBIMC), the largest student-led prayer walk in New York City. Fifteen hundred marchers walked a total of eight miles in Manhattan, culminating in a Times Square rally and silent prayer “flash mob” in the main lobby of Grand Central Station.
The catalyst for the day was a dismayed youth pastor who asked some of his student leaders why Christians were publicly silent after atheists launched a citywide ad blitz that October claiming one million New Yorkers reject the existence of God.
They responded as only youth can: by launching a movement. Their tools of the trade: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and smartphones, social media inventions by their generation for their generation that empowered their efforts.
Less than two weeks later, on November 14, despite a storm bearing down on the Northeast and flash floods forecast throughout the day, fifteen hundred people showed up at the two rally points at 9:00 a.m. God smiled on them. The sun began to shine, and the rains held for four hours, just long enough to complete the walk. They walked with a purpose: to radiate love and affection for God and neighbor, while praying that God would be glorified in our city by lives that love others well.
In the last year and a half, God Belongs In My City student-led prayer walks have occurred in twenty cities. Over twenty thousand GBIMC T-shirts have been worn by teens around the country. The GBIMC story has reverberated at conferences and churches, and catalyzed similar student leadership. And GBIMC collaborated with 20/20 Vision for Schools to launch a related student-led education reform initiative called I Am My School. This book tells their story. It’s a story of leadership, student leadership, because “God belongs in my city,” and God requires students to lead.
If you’re a young person reading this, be inspired. But don’t stay that way. Do something. Pray. Serve. Lead. Catalyze change.
If you’re an adult reading this, experience the awe and joy that come after we get out of David’s way long enough to watch Goliath topple.
Buy the Book
Watch C-Lite’s “In My City” Music Video
Walk and Pray
Attend the New York City walk October 29. Or plan one for your city.