Sk8in’ 4 Jesus!

Steven Harbaugh

Urban ministry provides constructive outlet for kids

James Lemmon, 11, of Akron, takes a break from skateboarding and watches the other kids. First Glance, a non-profit organization sponsored by local Akron churches, holds a skateboard night every Wednesday through Friday.

Credit: Steven Harbaugh

KENMORE — It doesn’t look like your typical religiously affiliated hangout: spray-painted graffiti, a gritty city mural on the walls, skate board ramps and a half pipe.

The sounds: not church hymns, but rather the snapping and cracking of skateboard decks on cold pavement.

On the entrance door: Several expletives have been scrawled in permanent marker.

Seventeen-year-old Charles Carswell of Akron gathered up enough gusto and catapulted over the ramp on his skateboard. On his descent, he snapped his board at the end and slid across the floor.

“Don’t worry, man, I got another one at home,” another boy said to him.

Carswell spent the rest of the evening sailing around on his skateboard shard, slipping off on occasion as it gave out underneath him.

On the other side of the room, 6-year-old Noah Blackert mastered the half pipe like a pro. But sometimes there would be a blur of wispy blond hair as his pint-size body skidded across the floor. He didn’t even flinch, brushing himself off and returning to do it all over again.

The indoor skate park is part of First Glance Ministries, an urban ministry housed above a Rent-A-Center in Kenmore, an Akron neighborhood.

Off the streets, on the boards

Kenmore has problems with teenage loitering in its downtown district (even to the extent that the city removed all benches in the area), and the First Glance indoor skate park is the answer to getting teens off the streets. First Glance is not affiliated with any church, but it was originally started about five years ago by Akron church behemoth, The Chapel.

The indoor skate park, run entirely by volunteers, including some Kent State students, is open Wednesday through Friday evenings.

As much as skateboard culture might seem strange to merge with religion, it makes sense in Kenmore to Noelle Beck, one of the center’s chief organizers.

“We’re a lot about just letting them be who they are,” Beck said. “We don’t try to impose Christian values on them. They can still smoke outside, and they can still swear and not be reprimanded. We encourage them not to do those things, but we don’t want to be jerks about it.”

Not all kids at the center are religious, and not all of them attend church. But to some, being around Christian volunteers has awakened their interest in religion.

Thursday and Friday evenings average between 50 to 100 teens between the ages of 8 and 18, said Nathan Yokum, junior art education major and a volunteer.

“The whole idea here is not really to push God on anybody, but for them to come and ask us questions and have positive influences there for them,” he said.

Bloody fights and broken homes

A lot of the center’s teens are from poor family situations, and it gives them a chance to be around other teens and socialize.

“Some of our students are in jail currently,” Beck said. “We had one student whose father would help him steal, and his dad would be the getaway driver. One of the students said their mother never knew where he was or what he was doing, too.”

Despite seeing firsthand the gritty nature of parenting gone awry, Beck said the center serves an important purpose: to give kids a safe, positive place to hang out.

Sometimes, however, things don’t go as planned.

“We’ve had a couple of fights that really have been out of control,” she said. “Blood and the whole bit. If they get in a fight, they’re kicked out for a month, and we call the police, and their parents to take them home.”

The facility also was robbed last year, and community-donated televisions, computers and video games were stolen. The ramps remain, however — and skateboarding flourishes as the main activity at the center.

The indoor Christian skate park is the brainchild of Josh Vince, a 17-year-old Kenmore resident. He thought up the idea while doing community service.

“My idea was to teach kids how to skateboard,” he said. “And then it kind of took off from there.”

A young skateboarder cloaked in a black cloth shroud sailed up the ramps, steadying himself as he launched over the wooden prop and landed perfectly on his board — something that is few and far between with the large number of wipeouts the kids experience.

Contact religion and culture reporter Steven Harbaugh at [email protected].