All the neighborhood kids are out of school for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so for Cole McGee and his Redemption Church Youth Group there’s only one way to celebrate: a massive Playstation FIFA tournament.
The church I pastor is seated in one of the only pockets of socio-economic diversity in Johnson County Kansas, a mostly white, extremely affluent suburb of Kansas City. Our neighborhood is largely Hispanic and skews poor in comparison to other suburbs on the Kansas side of the river. To the rest of Johnson County this part of town is known mostly for bad traffic, great Mexican food, and for hosting the county courthouse and jail, but if all you ever do is a drive by on your way to pay a ticket or get a marriage license you are really missing something special. Because this neighborhood is such a beautiful place.
It’s the third year for the day-long Martin Luther King Jr./FIFA celebration. The kids draft teams ahead of time and youth pastor, Cole McGee, sets the bracket on a combination of how good each player is and the strength of their team. Even with the seeding, the same kid wins every year. They kick him down to a lesser ranked team and he still destroys everyone, and there are some really good players here. This year a couple of kids decided to set up a loudspeaker and broadcast live commentary on the matches. You can see on the right in the picture above, the winner of the previous match (also my oldest son) is being interviewed by one of the announcers.
This tournament is one of those things I think of when I say the neighborhood is a beautiful place. Participation is probably half-and-half hispanic kids and gringos from the burbs, and these kids are tight. Between Sunday worship and weekly youth group they are together a couple of times a week, but these day-long events are such important bonding moments. “It lets our kids have a common experience,” McGee says. “They tell the stories of this day over and over. I think it has to do with how close they sit together and how they are running this event on their own.”
I watch them all sitting together eating pizza, and playing cards while they wait for their next match. Closer to the game a few of the boys are giving each other crap, and screaming for yellow cards and goals. The whole room is on their feet as a match ends in PK’s. A freshman girl just beat a junior boy… he’s never going to live that down.
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., because none of these kids are blind to race. They know the tensions at work in our society. They live those tensions. They also know how important it is for them to be part of this group together. In the wake of the presidential election our neighborhood has been gripped with anxiety. The Hispanic community is wondering how much of Donald Trump’s bluster will be followed up with action.
These kids are not afraid to talk openly about their fears. They tell stories about the racism they deal with at school. They talk about the prospect of deportation and the possibility their families could be split up. Some of these kids are Dreamers. They know the government has their personal information and could round them up anytime. But that’s not all they know. They also know that they belong here at Redemption, together. They know that their friendships across racial lines may be essential in the days ahead. You can see it in the way they interact. These kids love each other. They’re not just playing FIFA today. They are breaking down barriers and building bonds that will forever change the way they see race.
I love the way our church loves the neighborhood, but even more than that, I love the way the neighborhood loves the church. Even those who don’t attend here on Sundays, they watch out for the church, they feel a sense of ownership. There is a sense that we are sharing the same life, and that the whole reason the church needs to exist in the first place isn’t even about the church at all. It’s about the neighborhood. If the neighborhood isn’t flourishing, then the church isn’t doing it’s job.
Our church stands with this neighborhood. We are this neighborhood. We don’t check immigration status. We just love each other. The character of the immigrant community mirrors those things to which the church should aspire: community, hospitality, family, kindness, honesty, and hard work. It’s hard to imagine wanting to deport these kids, these refugees from the drug wars, violence, and economic strife of Northern Mexico and Central America. Losing any one single one of them would be like… no not like… it would mean losing one of our own kids… not on my watch.