Urban Youth: Neglected, Alone, and Fending for themselves

I can’t stop thinking about this heartbreaking experience!

But I should not act like it’s new. This heartbreak is ongoing. Youth have fewer and fewer safe zones; they feel alone; they are fending for themselves in these streets!

First Presbyterian Church’s mission is to be a “church for the city.” As a partial strategy for achieving this mission, they partner with the organization I head up, the Urban Renewal Center (URC). The members at FPC are fired up about the church’s mission and our work at the URC; they make personal and career decisions to support the community in some amazing ways. Also, they are a large part of the volunteer pool at the URC.

It’s so beautiful!

We engage in community work, working with youth and homeless citizens and helping people with their economic mobility. I am a pastor for the city. So, when I see participants in my daily routine, my pastoral instincts kick in. I want to know how they are doing and, if possible, support them more. I often worry about their welfare and safety.

So, I want to share a story explaining why my heart is so heavy for our youth. I was heading to Norfolk airport on Wednesday night, February 21, to pick up the bass player for URC’s Black Sacred Art Series event. There was a heavy police presence with crime tape circling the intersection of Princess Anne and Ballentine Blvd. As I detoured, I was curious about what was happening and checked the local news outlet’s IG account. Indeed, WTKR had just posted that a car had hit a bicyclist. The cyclist was rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.

And you guessed correctly… There are no bicycle lanes in the black neighborhoods. They are in Ghent, an affluent, mostly white neighborhood, though.

I digress.

When I saw the IG post about the cyclist, I panicked. The URC supports homeless citizens with employment services and workforce development. We give them bus passes and partner with local bicycle shops to provide bicycles for some of them to get to work and other places since they don’t have cars.

I was worried that it could be one of our friends! I couldn’t wait until Thursday morning to find out more information.

Then, I got a text from a friend from church who works for Norfolk Public Schools. Not knowing I was out there and saw the commotion the night before, she said, “We had an 8th grader killed… last night–he was riding a bike…. things are hard today.”

My heart almost stopped! I replied, “Oh wow!!! I saw that last night. It was by Ballentine Blvd! I’m so, so sorry to hear who it was… I was out there at midnight to pick up one of the musicians for tonight. I saw it was a bicycle crash with a car. I was wondering who it was.” It was Camron Small, an 8th grader–only 14 years old! I am so heartbroken! Accidents and health issues, along with the murder epidemic, are cutting the lives of far too many young people.

On March 4, I joined my friend at Small’s funeral service at Gethsemane Community Fellowship Church. The line of young people who joined the processional extended into the church’s yard. They stood in the rain, wearing something red, which I suppose was Small’s favorite color. I skipped the line and went into a largely empty church that would slowly fill mostly with grieving teenagers. 

There were a few community members, pastors, school counselors, administrators, some teachers, and my friend consoling teens. And, of course, the school staff was running through tissue boxes as fast as the teens. Some teens were in groups, comforting each other. They all took Cameron’s death hard. I could feel their pain. I was so sad and felt helpless. I didn’t know the kids. All I could do was to be present and try to be kind to as many of them as I could.

Gosh! I wish I could build a relationship with the kids. But how? 

I digress.

Besides what appeared to be Small’s family, few adults were at the funeral to support Cameron’s grieving friends.

My immediate thought was that this is far too common these days. Cities don’t pause about stuff like this anymore. Policies are not going to change because of this black urban kid. It’s just another day in the hood. Urban teens have to learn how to cope on their own!

After the funeral’s recessional, I overheard my friend, through her own tears, graciously offer a ride to two young ladies who seemed to have come without parental or guardian supervision and with no plan to get back home safely. Later, my friend told me the young lady wanted to give her directions to her house instead of allowing her to follow the GPS. One explained, “I’m going to take you the way the GPS doesn’t take you because they start shooting at any time.” My friend asked her how she deals with the fear of the shooting. The young lady explained that she tries not to be home and doesn’t go outside. 

That is like living in a war zone!

Admittedly, I was triply heartbroken. First of all, the death of the 14-year-old was indeed tragic. Secondly, to observe so many teens left to fend for themselves in the grief of their friend was heartbreaking. Thirdly, to face the reality that teens live in what I would describe as a war zone-type world is troubling. 

The USA invests billions of dollars in international wars and war zones. Why don’t we do something about the homegrown war zones our children are either navigating (like these young ladies) or arming up for war (in gangs and neighborhood turfs) as they walk out of their homes every day?

I am grateful for people like my friend from church and others. Yes, many people are working to make a difference daily. They genuinely care! Yet, the problems are caught in systems! From family systems to governmental systems, there are problems. They are often obstacles to a collective mission to make a difference. I can tell you stories! Yet, there are people of goodwill who are working the best they can to “do something.”

Lord, in your mercy, help us, and God bless the children! 


Dr. Antipas L. Harris
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