Missed connections with Jesus, from a Girard Avenue strip club to the King of Prussia Mall

    I first visited Kensington during the winter of 1992. I didn’t want to be there.

    I remember stepping out of a white van with at least three other girls near the intersection of Frankford and Girard. Our driver said he would be back in two hours, and then he drove the white van away, leaving us — a group of suburban teenage girls — to evangelize random people on the street.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    I first visited Kensington during the winter of 1992. I didn’t want to be there.

    I remember stepping out of a white van with at least three other girls near the intersection of Frankford and Girard. Our driver said he would be back in two hours, and then he drove the white van away, leaving us — a group of suburban teenage girls — to evangelize random people on the street.

    We had come from a Christian youth retreat held at a King of Prussia hotel over our holiday break. The conference focused on equipping young Christians to evangelize their secular communities. Most of the teenagers attended with their church youth groups. I was on my own, having been invited by a Christian worker who knew my family.

    On the second or third day of the retreat, we attended role-playing workshops to practice sharing our faith. We each had a tract to use as a conversation tool. It was a small, square, yellow booklet with the words “The Four Spiritual Laws” in black lettering on the front.

    Inside, stick figures illustrated the laws:

    God has a plan for us.
    We are separated from God because of sin.
    Jesus bridges the gap between us and God.
    By believing in Jesus, we can access God and learn about His plan.

    After our trial run, we went on field trips in small groups.

    Parent volunteers shuttled us around the Philadelphia area, where we were to get real-world experience talking to strangers about Jesus. I was nervous about our mission, and a little annoyed. The point of the training was to encourage our witness among family and friends. I didn’t want to practice on people I didn’t know.

    The Four Spiritual Laws facilitated a simple but charged dialogue about Christianity. Wherever we were going, we would be confronting people with a choice: take the Jesus bridge or go to hell.

    I don’t know how the youth leaders decided where to send us or how to group us. I do remember that some of the louder, popular kids went to the King of Prussia mall. I went to Kensington.

    The mall was a logical destination for the task at hand — full of wandering teenagers, people whose culture we recognized and understood. People who didn’t spend much time lingering next to a strip club under the Girard Avenue El station.

    Close encounter, not close enough

    A girl named Amy became our unofficial leader. Our small group huddled around her as we walked from Frankford towards the elevated transit stop above Front Street. Most of the people we saw stood under the tracks, smoking and talking, while they waited for a bus, a trolley, or maybe an afternoon show at Club Ozz.

    What frightened us just as much as talking to strangers, I think, was the strip club’s colorful sign. When we came within about a hundred yards of it, we turned, walked a block or so back to Frankford, and then circled back around again. For two hours, we paced this same small stretch of Girard. Every time we headed south, I pictured myself talking to the people under the El. Every time we headed north, I looked forward to seeing the white van.

    Perhaps the strangest part of the experience was that nobody spoke to us. It would have been appropriate for someone to ask what we were doing. Nobody did.

    I do remember focusing on one woman during our rounds. She had been standing still for a while before she started walking towards us. As we approached one another, I thought about what to say. I wanted to try talk to her. I felt like my faith hinged upon my ability to reach in my pocket and spring the Four Spiritual Laws on this woman. I said nothing. I remember thinking her eyes looked glazed as we passed.

    At one point Amy said she thought it was enough of a witness that we were there, walking the street, out of our comfort zones. I agreed, along with the other girls. Eventually, the white van came and we returned to King of Prussia.

    Missed connections

    Back at the conference center, different groups shared their evangelism experiences at an evening meeting. One of the kids at the mall had stood somewhere on the second floor promenade, reading the Laws as loudly as he could to friends standing below him. People laughed and clapped when they heard this.

    I wondered how the people under the El would have reacted had he stood in front of them and shouting the words in the yellow booklet. I didn’t stop to think that people had heard crazier things screamed on Girard Avenue.

    Nobody asked our group to share. I was relieved. In a way, I experienced more discomfort in the conference room than I had in Kensington. I didn’t connect with the people in either setting, but I understood why I felt out of place on Girard. It was harder to process why I couldn’t assimilate with other Christian teenagers.

    Twenty years later, as I drive around Kensington’s streets now, with my realtor and my baby girl, I think about the first time I visited. I wonder what my teenage self would have thought had she known she would one day live among the people who gathered under the El.

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