Contemplative Prayer: Marginalizing Urban Youth?

By Youth Specialties on May 19 2014


Pablo Otaola (@PabloOtaola) is a new friend to YS but has a long history working with urban youth. We're excited to share his thoughts on contemplative prayer and how it translates to students in an urban setting. The post below was originally shared on 33vii.com


Original photo from Stegan Georgi

Contemplative Prayer: Marginalizing Urban Youth?

Prayer. Is. Everything. I truly believe that. I sincerely believe that when people face a tough situation and say, “What else can I do? I did everything I could,” and they have not prayed, they have actually not done everything that they could. I’m sure you’ve heard that and more about prayer. However, on this post, I want to focus on contemplative prayer.

We read and hear about books on nurturing and developing contemplative prayer all the time; at least I do.

I’ve heard my pastor preach on it. I’ve taken seminary courses which were actually called “Contemplative Prayer”. We also hear about all of those times when Jesus or other prominent Biblical figures left the people and went into a quiet place.

Contemplative prayer is a great thing. I try to develop my times alone with Jesus. I try to get away from everyday life in order to be alone with Jesus, to have an opportunity to hear from the Lord.

But here’s my struggle and question as I do Urban Youth Ministry:

Am I marginalizing my youth by the way I teach about contemplative prayer?

The context in which we usually read about contemplative prayer is most often the context of Jesus’ biblical times. Life was slower and the desert was easily accessible thus being rather opposite to the urban lifestyle and context.

Life in the urban context is most often in-your-face, hard, fast and loud. This context is nothing like the “country-like” context of the 1st Century Jew. The 1st Century Jewish context actually reminds me more of the country life that we now see in some areas of the United States.

The urban context can contain some cultural barriers to finding a space to “get away.”

The books that I read are usually written by people of some financial means. People that didn’t grow up in the urban context. People that have the privilege of mobility through cars, money, and a network of people that have “beach houses” that they can borrow in order to “get away”. I’m sure you are thinking, “I WISH I had all those resources at my disposal.”

As an urban youth ministry leader, you know that nurturing a contemplative and quiet prayer life cannot be fully accomplished by doing what most books today say to do. We just don’t have the money or mobility to do so. And even if we do, our youth usually don’t.

What do we do with this?

How do we teach our urban youth, and even ourselves to nurture contemplative prayer without marginalizing our youth into thinking this is impossible or at least highly improbable?


Read a follow up post from Pablo with more of his thoughts on contemplative prayer at 33vii.com: CLICK TO VIEW


Pablo Otaola is on staff at Denver Young Life and lead the development of the ministry in Southwest Denver. Prior to that, Pablo served as Area Director in Chicago’s Northwest side as well as the Young Life Midwest Divisional Latino Representative. Connect with Pablo on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, and Instagram.



Comments

Picture of Brad Griffin

From Brad Griffin on May 20, 2014

Thanks for sharing this perspective. You’re raising important concerns about how we talk about prayer and the contemplative life with and among urban youth. It’s been helpful for us at the Fuller Youth Institute to partner with some urban ministry leaders who have been trying to weave together BOTH urban life/ministry AND contemplative spirituality as they live it out. Here are a couple of resources that might help: http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/your-rhythms and an urban contemplative retreat guide: http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/urban-contemplative-retreat-guide

Picture of Jacob Eckeberger

From Jacob Eckeberger on May 20, 2014

Thanks for these great resources Brad!

Picture of Edrin Williams

From Edrin Williams on May 21, 2014

Pablo, I appreciate the post.  We don’t often have articles like this that are intentionally written from an urban perspective.  This is refreshing to see! 

That being said, I had a little bit of a pause reading this first part of the post, because I felt like you were initially suggesting that there is no place for contemplative prayer in urban youth ministry because of the challenges that you highlighted so well.  I went on to read the 2nd part of the part and I now realize that you weren’t saying that at all. You were raising to the concern so that you could on and say that it’s possible, but it may just look different! I agree, wholeheartedly!

I think that urban youth have an even greater need to learn and participate in contemplative prayer practices.  If ever there were a demographic of people who needed to find rhythms of rest, silence, retreat, and refreshment, it’s urban youth.  I’m fortunate enough to serve in the Covenant Church, which is rich in the kind of resources that it makes available to leaders, free of charge.  Additionally, UYWI and Fuller Youth Institute have great resources that are available. 

I make it my business to tell our students (adults, as well) that the city is not some wasteland that needs to be escaped in search of God.  Instead, God dwells here, too, and we get the chance to connect with God and then join God is the work of making all things new, the visible and invisible. In working to have that message take root in the hearts of our students, I’ve found contemplative prayer practices incredibly valuable. 

Thanks for your writing…both parts!  I’ll definitely be passing it along to others.

Picture of Archie Honrado

From Archie Honrado on May 22, 2014

Hi Pablo, Thank you for sharing your insights. I am an urban youth worker for over 15 years based in Southern California. I discovered the contemplative prayer life when I looked outside the predominant white male evangelical Protestant contemplatives. I believe the suburban affluent contemplative writers who are referring to are also new to the discipline and can only see it in their context and they write for their context as well.
The early Christians fleed the city to the desert to be closer to Jesus and discovering a prayer practice, discipline we now consider contemplative prayers. This early Christians came to be known as the Desert Fathers. They left the city to avoid or to flee distraction and temptations only to discover that they brought the “city” with them.  They learned contemplative prayers in the desert - very austere and inhospitable place- something our urbanites youth can relate to.
The early Christians turned Desert Fathers developed a tool- contemplative prayers is one them- to fight distractions and temptations fought in the battle field of the mind.
Some of the early prayers they learned are ” Jesus Prayer” , ” Centering Prayer”, Lectio Divina”, These prayers requires a minimal tool, no curriculum. These prayers don’t need a lot of money or space in able to learn, teach and practice by our urban youth.
As urban youth workers, it is important to know that contemplative prayer practices levels the “playing field’ in terms of cultivating spirituality with our urban youth, it does not marginalized, it will only if compare what we have and don’t have in the place where we are. It levels the playing field because contemplative prayer is organic, it thrives on what is already living in the soul of the person.
Pablo, I hope I serve alongside of you together with Larry Acosta of Urban Youth Workers Institute, Kara Powel and Brad Griffin of Fuller Youth Institute. You tapped into one of the most significant prayer practices we should teach our youth. As the great Dallas Willard told me when I asked him what the most significant spiritual discipline we should teach our urban youth, he said: ” silence and solitude”. This two disciplines is learned organically and space can be found creatively even where there seems to be no space because like a good contemplative and monk would know ” learn everything in your cell ( room ) because everywhere you go you take your cell with you.

blessings brother
Archie Honrado

Picture of Pablo Otaola

From Pablo Otaola on May 22, 2014

Thanks so much for the resources Brad! I took a quick peek and you’ve got some great stuff there. I’m working with Dr. Daniel Hodge from Northpark University on some Urban Youth Ministry Papers. I know he’s also working with Northpark and I’m excited to see how you all continue to collaborate for the Kingdom!

Picture of Pablo Otaola

From Pablo Otaola on May 22, 2014

Hi Edrin Williams!
Thanks so much for your encouragement and resources. I LOVE the covenant church. I have been part of a covenant church for most of my life and they do have great resources.

I have also been tied to UYWI and Fuller Youth Institute and they do have some good FREE resources :) Northpark Seminary has a great Urban Ministry Certificate Program that is run by a great thinker and theologian of our time : Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. If you want resources read anything he puts out as well as checking out their program: http://www.northpark.edu/Seminary/Academics/Certificate-Programs/Urban-Ministry

And I love how you are telling your students the need of a theology of the city. We all end up in a city. Interesting how we started in a garden but will end up in a city. I commend you :)

Brother feel free to reach out any time.

Picture of Pablo Otaola

From Pablo Otaola on May 22, 2014

Archie,
So well put brother. I agree wholeheartedly. Contemplative prayer is an absolute must in all Christians, but in hostile places the need for a place of rest, safety, etc is that much harder to find yet that much more beneficial. Having grown up in a multi-cultural immigrant suburban context and now having lived for years in urban Chicago and now in urban Denver, I see both sides.

Thanks for your insightful thoughts on realizing that the desert is a hostile and uncomfortable place. Sure the desert has more room than most (if not all) urban environments but there are some good similarities between the harsh urban context and the harsh 1st century desert… including thieves and rogue bands that make me remember the gangs of today. Thanks again for bringing up this dynamic.

Contemplative prayer, it seems to me, might be harder to sell to our Urban Youth since they are so far away from silence and contemplation and rest. However, once taught it must be taught contextually and with the realization that we were created to live with this life rhythm. Therefore, my assumption is that every teen (urban and otherwise) yearns for this yet they do not know it in today’s fast paced loud world. My heart blooms in thinking about urban youth learning to be still, listen, and be fully vulnerable with God in an intimate time of solitude.

Let’s continue to teach everything we do not from the context that we might have received from those that came before us, but rather in a fully contextualized manner. One of the best US Latino Theologians of our time and maybe even of all time in US history Justo Gonzalez said: Archie,
So well put brother. I agree wholeheartedly. Contemplative prayer is an absolute must in all Christians, but in hostile places the need for a place of rest, safety, etc is that much harder to find yet that much more beneficial. Having grown up in a multi-cultural immigrant suburban context and now having lived for years in urban Chicago and now in urban Denver, I see both sides.

Thanks for your insightful thoughts on realizing that the desert is a hostile and uncomfortable place. Sure the desert has more room than most (if not all) urban environments but there are some good similarities between the harsh urban context and the harsh 1st century desert… including thieves and rogue bands that make me remember the gangs of today. Thanks again for bringing up this dynamic.

Contemplative prayer, it seems to me, might be harder to sell to our Urban Youth since they are so far away from silence and contemplation and rest. However, once taught it must be taught contextually and with the realization that we were created to live with this life rhythm. Therefore, my assumption is that every teen (urban and otherwise) yearns for this yet they do not know it in today’s fast paced loud world. My heart blooms in thinking about urban youth learning to be still, listen, and be fully vulnerable with God in an intimate time of solitude.

Let’s continue to teach everything we do not from the context that we might have received from those that came before us, but rather in a fully contextualized manner. One of the best US Latino Theologians of our time and maybe even of all time in US history Justo Gonzalez said:

That for US Latinos, ethnic and cultural identity is therefore central for theological inquiry. He also said that that means that every point of theology, doctrine, and biblical interpretation is open to reinspection and rereading.

I feel that that is true for all contexts; that we must have the freedom to contextualize ministry and live with the tension of continuing to still honoring those that came before us and church theological history.

Larry Acosta is a mentor of mine. Anything he does, I’m in :) And I would love to work alongside you and Fuller Youth Institute. The connection between Northpark Seminary Staff and Fuller Youth Institute would be easily attainable. Let me know if you want to work on something that’s on your mind!

Blessings brother and thank you so much for taking the time to comment!

Picture of Kimberly Williams

From Kimberly Williams on May 27, 2014

Hello Pablo,

What you’re getting at in this post is something that I’ve wrestled with too. So many contemplative prayer resources assume nature, solitude, and quiet. After years of urban ministry I wondered what contemplative prayer could look like in loud, crowded, concrete setting, so I started experimenting with this idea of an urban retreat. I wrote up some of my ideas with Brad and Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson here: http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/urban-contemplative-retreat-guide.

I think the attitude and posture I’ve been trying to seek is how can I allow God to use the noise, people, and urban context to inform my prayers, to show me what he is doing in this place at this time. A contemplative approach that engages rather than retreats.

Sincerely, Kimberly Williams

Picture of Pablo Otaola

From Pablo Otaola on May 27, 2014

Hi Kimberly,
This is great stuff! I skimmed it quickly and see where you are taking something that people see as a hurdle (noise, people, etc) and creating it into an asset that you leverage for contemplative prayer. I really like how that changes the paradigm. “A contemplative approach that engages rather than retreats.” Great work! I think that what you guys did and are doing is contextualization of a spiritual discipline and we need to rethink praxis that we have inherited from our spiritual forefathers. i’m thankful for people like you, Brad and Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson. Blessings!

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