One Does Not Simply…Write About Anthropology

My Time as a Graduate Student

The Refuge

on December 7, 2012

I did a project recently on the ostrazation of religious organizations and focusing on the reasons and effects it had on many people. One group that I focused on was a youth outreach group The Refuge located in Altoona, Pa. Two of my best friends Bethany and Micah Marshall try to influence lives of many kids’ lives in a possitive manner. What follows is a section of my paper.

The Refuge: Changing Culture affecting the Youth

  As I have stated before, our cultural environment shapes and influences everything from our religious point of view, social interactions, gender identity, and individual identity. Many of us would like to think that today’s youth grow up in great neighborhoods with great families whose parents have been perfect role models for their children, but unfortunately this is far from the truth. It is true that there are vast majority of youth who grow up religious because of their cultural environments and their family environments, but there is also a reality that there are locations in the United States where there are slums, drug and alcohol abuse, parents who abandon their children, parents who abuse each other and their children, etc. These environments influence the actions and lives of many teens and young adults. What is even more devastating is that there are not that many youth programs that will openly take troubled youths who have been in trouble with the law, having identity problems, in abuse relationships with parents, etc. But there are plenty of youth programs and churches who accept those who have been ‘positively’ influenced by positive environments and have turned into good religious and responsible youth adults. Many of these kinds of youth programs shut their doors not wanting ‘trouble’ and leaving these troubled youths to drop out of school, thrown in jail, get involved with substance abuse, and basically lead a life that will get them nowhere.

            The small country town of Altoona, Pennsylvania can identify with many inner city problems ranging from low income families, alcohol and drug abuse, broken homes, and problems with self-identity. A large of the teenagers in this area are from low income and broken homes with no hope of a future, many of the teenagers also do not have any place to go because of the local churches who shun them away because of their situation. Pastor Micah Marshall came to Altoona to help an outreach youth program called The Refuge build their program and reach out to the community. Pastor Micah has been with the organization since 2011 when the outreach program only had as many as 30-35 members, today the program has about 150 and is growing.

            Refuge is comprised of teenagers from the ages thirteen to eighteen and different kinds of backgrounds with an open door policy, no discrimination on age, race, color, gender, religious background, or sexual orientation. The only way to be rejected from this organization is if a member brings physical harm to another member or youth staff member. The Refuge promotes non-denominational practices and focuses on the importance the relationships with God and Jesus instead on focusing on the constructs of religious practices, that it is more important to understand the relationship between the individual and the divine entity. Pastor Micah quotes: “‘The Refuge’ we’re not into religion, we’re into relationships. We don’t care what denominational background the students come from or what church they attend on Sunday mornings or even if they attend church at all. We are just glad to have them hangout with us on a Tuesday nights. Many churches stick with in their denomination and play it safe and don’t inner mix [referring to the various religious background]. Plus we are an outreach driven youth ministry which means we go out and get the students rather than wait for the students to come to us.”

The outreach programs identifies itself as a “not your average youth group” because they accept every teenager from “every walk of life from every area, we have no boundaries”.  About 75% of the teenagers in Refuge come from dysfunctional homes and no relationship with parents: “This is one place they can come for two hours to get loved on where people care and want to spend time with them”, quotes Pastor Micah. Resulting in Pastor Micah and his wife Bethany as being the main role models for these teenagers: “For all of us it breaks our hearts to know they don’t have anyone at all to love them,” says Micah, “so for us it’s a huge honor and it’s a huge responsibility for us to know that and we have to make sure we stay strong but yet real with them. We want them to see us following Christ and in that they do the same.”

Culture is changing very rapidly and culture change is aimed and reflected in the youth culture, including the taboo of sex, self-image, and identity. Many religious organizations are not adapting to the cultural change and still very set in their old ways: Culture plays a huge part in religion and vice versa because they actively affect one another,” Pastor Micah, “culture and religion play hand in hand with each other yet they can clash as well. They are like the two neighborhood kids who sometimes get a long and play nice but also disagree and fight with each other. It is important for religion to have culture so that the effectiveness of the message that we preach, teach and live out is moving with culture. If we don’t then we are left behind with what is that “OLD TIME RELIGION” that is outdated and ineffective.” Pastor Micah understands that as a youth pastor he has to keep up to date on the rising cultural trends and how it can affect youths in negative and positive ways. In many cases, the restraints of strict guidelines that many religious organizations has put upon youths have made many youths question religious or veer away from religious as a whole.

A survey was given to the teenagers by staff at The Refuge with seven questions pertaining to religion and self-identity, one question asking: In your own words, define what religion means to you. Responses from the youths varied greatly. Many responses to religion was that it was corrupt, bad, or not believing in religion to the opposite side of the spectrum of defining principle, one’s lifestyle, etc. Pastor Micah’s response to this: “because religion sometimes presents itself as guidelines, corrupt and all the negative things. We teach our kids it’s not about the religion you have but about the relationship you have.” From this survey we are able to observe that there are multiple ways of defining religion not in youth, but institutions are finding it hard to define religion for it to relate to the growing culture and as a result ostracizing individuals.

Many of the teenagers have be ostracized from society because of the way they dress, behave and in many extreme cases, there are teenagers who have been beaten have substance abuse. All these troubles before the age of eighteen and are casted out by society and religious organizations because the institution does not want to have a bad image or be affiliated with troubled kids when it is these types of kids who need the most attention and help than those who come from good homes. The Refuge lives up to its name by creating a safe place for teenagers from all walks of life and helping them get back on the right track. Pastor Micah and his wife have seen teenagers improve their lives in a matter of a few months and build a relationship that will better their future. 

I am thinking about expanding this project to get Refuge recognized and help out the community.

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