Below is an excerpt from a book published in 2009 called ‘Stories From The Streets’. It is a chapter I was asked to write about a group of young people I have had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time with over the years.
Heaven is a Halfpipe
This is the true story of how a group of society’s outcasts created a community that inspires others.
Six years ago the village was not at peace. The sound of boards clattering, trucks grinding on metal and a few choice profanities of either triumph or frustration was broken intermittently with the complaints of residents and caretakers. The group was moved along from so many locations that they spent more time finding new spots than mastering the ones they had already discovered. They were a nuisance; too loud, too rude; too inconsiderate of others sharing the same living space.
Unless you cared to look below the surface and see the real picture. They ended up outside the church – it was the best location for their sport. They utilised the front of the building; the wheelchair ramp, the stairs, the brick wall and the flat concrete were perfectly positioned for learning tricks and the doorway and bench were just in the right position to allow the spectators amongst them a great view. A group of teenagers; baggy clothes, music players, cigarettes, obligatory skate deck slung under one arm, cans of energy drinks and beer. They had found their resting place; for the moment.
Church services were interrupted by the chatter, laughter, hollering, slamming boards, thuds of fallen skaters. These young people defied being seen and not heard. They left cans, cigarette butts and a few cracked or eroded bricks each visit; the mark of their territory. Yet it wasn’t theirs and they were all too aware of it. Something had to be done.
And so a few members of the church volunteered to spend time each evening service outside with the skaters; investing time in building relationships and breaking the stereotypes on either side; the “Show Love Team” was formed. And as these teenagers and Parishioners started to interact an entirely different picture of the adolescent characters emerged.
Skating was their passion; it united them. Their whole lifestyle revolved around it. If it was dry they would be conquering a new trick; if the weather was unsuitable they would be planning their next outing. They were constantly learning, developing, improving. It was addictive. They were consumed with their sport and it created a strong bond between them. They encouraged, valued and learnt from each other. They were loyal, friendly and welcoming. And yet they were consistently turned away from public property, car parks, even kerbs on the roadside. This rejection led them to develop an exterior of indifference, protecting them from the negative response they generated in others.
As they gained confidence in the intentions of the Show Love Team they spoke of their dream; to have a skate park on their doorstep – somewhere they could call their own and claim for their sport. A place they could belong. Their vision caught the imagination of one member of the team who captured their desire and vowed to help make it a reality. She was an unlikely candidate; female, barely eighteen years old and completely uneducated in the world of skating. But she had a passion for the cause, a willingness to unite and campaign with these adolescents and the belief that God had brought them to the Church doorstep – the least she could do would be to love, accept and support them. She was warmly accepted by the group and became part of their small community.
In February 2003 the skaters embarked on the first step towards their goal. A meeting was arranged between themselves and the local leisure development officer to discuss the possibility of building a skate park in the village. Although they naively went into the meeting assuming it was just a question of putting forward a strong enough case; they left with the knowledge that this was not a project to be taken lightly. They were going to have to be in it for the long haul; planning permission, council approval, residents’ agreement, suitable space, and, of course, a vast amount of money. Still, they left undeterred and began to draw up designs and create ideas as to how to overcome the hurdles. Their delight at being believed in enough for them to be taken seriously at a meeting was apparent and their enthusiasm became infectious. They were motivated and driven; they would achieve this!
However the latest addition to the group didn’t want to leave the vision on hold for the years it could take to accomplish. She decided that if they couldn’t bring the skate park to them; they would have to bring themselves to the skate parks.
A week after that first meeting, six boys piled into a couple of cars. A few hours and many wrong turnings later they reached their destination. It was a small outdoor space with minimum equipment but to the boys it was perfect. They were in their element and came alive during the excursion; they wanted nothing more than to enjoy the unfamiliar layout and develop the best technique to conquer it. Watching their response to the simple outing, one member vowed to find a way for them to keep experiencing new places and improving their sport. That member was me.
Over the past six years I have been privileged enough to bear witness to the development and growth of the individuals within this emerging community in addition to the group as a whole. And it is whole. The original founding members are still very much involved; some becoming leaders and mentors, others choosing to continue pursuing their sport elsewhere – but the thread that binds them together created by the shared passion for their hobby is one that cannot be broken. And that bond is not limited to that handful of schoolboys in those two cars six years ago.
As those teenagers developed into the young adults they are now, the group increased. Members were added to their number and they continued to travel monthly to skate parks across the country. They formed a collective identity; The Grind. One member created a logo using his flair for graffiti and this became a symbol of their culture. It marked their unity; they were part of something: finally, they belonged. The journey from that first amateur trip has not always been straightforward but there have been some considerable encouragements along the way. Although we have felt, at times, a lot of opposition we have also been overwhelmed by the generosity and love of many individuals and organisations.
About a year after the meeting to discuss building a facility in the village for the skaters, I had become very discouraged. We were unable to source any funding, were hitting proverbial brick walls with every site location suggestion and felt unable to stir in others any enthusiasm for our vision. I was at a summer festival, and came across a stall selling skate clothing by a Christian company. Many of the garments bore a logo declaring ‘Rise’ and a bible reference. I soon discovered that the reference from Micah 7:8 read; “Do not gloat over me my enemy, for though I have fallen, I will rise.” This became a source of inspiration over the years to come and continues to be a mantra in challenging times.
I wrote to that company explaining our dream, our frustrations and the hope we found in that verse. I received in reply an email of support and a large package of merchandise. This belief in our cause was incredibly moving, and filled us with the conviction that our idea truly was worthy. It was to be the first of many donations, each of which have inspired, encouraged and moved us for the simple reason that others have faith in our ambition.
We have received financial gifts, letters of appreciation, countless donations of time and even been privileged enough to have a supporter running the London Marathon in our name. We have had funding applications granted and one internationally prolific skate brand provided us with 100 limited edition t-shirts left over from their sponsored skaters’ UK tour, pairs of exclusive trainers and all of the other merchandise left from their trip. Our subsequent outings saw the boys showing off their new attire and being delighted to be asked by their peers at the skate parks if they were sponsored!
There have also been stories on a more personal level of transformed lives and lifelong friendships. We come from an assortment of different circumstances and often forget the diversity between us that is visible to the outside world. Those looking in on our community are often surprised at the characters they see and the behaviour displayed – there is acceptance, inclusion, tolerance and unity – whereas in different contexts the same individuals are known as characters for entirely different reasons!
The Grind has, for many, become an environment that induces development and maturity. It is a place where young people are released to be themselves because they are celebrated for their individuality. And it is not just our members who have changed.
Remember that village? The one that was sent into disarray at the beginning of our story? Two months ago – and six years after our tale began – a skate park was officially opened, marking a new beginning and leading us forward on the next step of our journey.