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‘They're Changing Us’: How Collier Park ‘Riffraff,’ Church Group Bonded

Journey Community Church’s efforts, including Sunday movie nights, lead to unexpected revelations in societal relationships. New Format learns new ways of reaching out.

In adopting for the month of June, the college and young adult group of was prepared to help Mayor Art Madrid “drive out illegal usage”—people that some call riffraff.

It didn’t take long to find that things are not so simple—and that the purported menaces to society would become agents of transformation.

“It’s funny,” said Sarah Merk-Benitez, Journey’s college pastor. “We came out to help the community. And then God entered. ‘I’m going to totally change you guys’—to the point where we feel like it makes more sense to be out here than inside our church building.

“Look at the people who are supposedly making it unsafe. They’re changing us. It was totally hilarious how our perspective changed within the first half-hour of being in the park.”

Meanwhile, a young generation is helping forge changes in the way church interacts with state.

“I think it’s cool that our community wants us to serve them,” said Sam Saavedra, a Journey mainstay since 2007. “It’s cool that the city is looking at our church and not saying, ‘Oh, these are hypocritical people,’ but: ‘They want to be a part of our community.’ ”

Journey’s young adult group, known as New Format, began its involvement at the park last August, when it began picking up trash in collaboration with Journey’s middle school group. When Mayor Madrid called the church this spring to see if it could help thwart the unwelcome element that has defined the park, New Format was a natural fit.

The last of four June movie nights in the park begins at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 26.  Besides the movies, the group helped organize a community brainstorming session June 19. A map of the park was on display to help facilitate discussion on how to improve the park, and neighborhood children were offered a reading program.

Therein lies the tension: On one hand, Journey’s participants have become endeared to the children who represent the need for safety at the park. At the same time, relationships have developed with the very persons purported to threaten the children’s safety.

Said Merk-Benitez: “It’s been pretty clear the last month—very clear there’s been an uprising in people’s hearts to be a part of the people in the park. But also to increase safety.”

Said Minnaret King, a Cuyamaca College student who lives near the park and has gone on mission trips to serve the poor of El Salvador and Haiti: “We live around people every day who are just as desperate for love and connection. In the core of us, that’s what all of us are searching for, is love and connection with other people. And some would say ultimately connection with God, I guess.”

Saavedra works at on La Mesa Boulevard near the trolley stop. Pedestrian traffic invariably includes homeless people stigmatized by others, including security guards. And by his own admission, he never thought much of the outcasts before.

But when stopping recently in traffic he found himself next to a cycler with all the markings of homelessness. He recognized the man from the movie nights. Saavedra overcame his introverted tendencies, not to mention the all-too-human tendency to avoid the outcast.

He rolled down his window and exchanged pleasantries.

For all that is happening in the park, these out-of-park exchanges best exhibit whatever progress Saavedra and other Journey members have experienced in June at the park.

Saavedra recalls going to see a best-selling Christian author, who brushed off him and his friends: “And you start to question, ‘Well does he think he’s better than me? Why does this guy not want to talk to us? Why is he so cold?’ And I think on that same level like this is the same thing.

“In the same sense, I think a lot of times: ‘Is that the way that they think about me, when I don’t recognize them or I don’t acknowledge them? When I don’t take the time to acknowledge that they are a valuable human being?”

It would be hard to blame Saavedra or anyone in New Format for persecuting the park dwellers going into this month. After all, since last August the group had been volunteering to clean the park, picking up broken bottles, used condoms and needles along with other debris.

The city was coming to them to up the ante and become a larger presence in the park. The “riffraff” would go find somewhere else to be riffraff.

Saavedra blushes at such perspective now, saying he received “a slap in the face” and “a wakeup call.”

“God is changing my perspective of really coming in here and thinking that we were going to push them out. I’m kind of experiencing God saying, ‘No, these people are valuable.’ And they may be a little rough around the edges, and a lot of them do have some deep brokenness. But they belong here at this park as much as we do.

“Setting aside the whole illegitimate user thing, and setting aside the whole idea of like you do drugs or you do alcohol, the reason we find condoms and broken alcohol bottles everywhere, putting aside that whole thing, when you look at who they are as people and you have conversations with them, you start to begin to see that you have to be able to put yourself in their lives.

“You have to be able to come down to their level because if I’m just standing there on my soapbox or judging them, I’m completely relating to them in the wrong way. And I’m not getting anywhere.”

Said one of the younger participants, Shannon English, a recent home-schooled high school graduate: “What I thought of it, going into it, was that we’d kind of be moving in and then people who were using the park illegitimately would be moving out—kind of doing the same thing elsewhere. But kind of what it turned into more so was like us coming in and inviting them in, and they joined us.”

What does that look like?

A recovered alcoholic within the Journey group completely misses the first movie because he is so engrossed in a conversation with a lonely alcoholic, who shares his story and cries into the night as the two make a deep human connection. College students come to the park throughout the week instead of more comfortable places to see what new conversations they might find.

During one movie night, English found herself sharing a conversation with a homeless man who repeatedly dismissed himself into the woods on the hill above the park, increasingly drunker as the night went on. And yet the man thoroughly enjoyed the company. And maybe that is the whole point.

“That day,” English said, “he had been handed sort of a tract pamphlet. And he said he didn’t usually accept those things. Like this one (pamphlet) kind of painted a picture of a Jesus who was more down to earth and was like dirty. And he was actually reading it with us and he was asking questions. It was amazing and incredible.”

English hasn’t seen that particular man since. But these new friends are a shifty bunch.

“Every time we’re here there are always new people,” said Bryce Turner, who works with Saavedra at Yogurt Mill and also leads worship at Alpine Christian Fellowship. “There’s always a few people who are here every Sunday night, just because they wonder around.

“One guy on the first week said, ‘I won’t be here next week. I’m going to L.A.’ He got a job. And almost every guy I talk to has been to Maryland, Michigan—all over the place.”

Turner is not the only musician in the bunch. King and Saavedra are mainstays on Journey’s team of musicians. King, who works at Starbucks, will be leading music for the first time this weekend, during the 7 p.m. Friday night service and 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services on Sunday at Journey.

Which raises the question: Is a night in the park a viable alternative to the traditional, sanctuary-centered worship gathering?

Said English, who will attend Grossmont College this fall: “Devotion time with God does not do what it’s supposed to do in you unless you’re doing this kind of thing. It can get ugly. It almost gets like poison. Like Bryce said, putting it in practice and pouring outwardly, that’s what worship and devotion is supposed to do.

“Within the past year I was in a place in my life where I was restless and frustrated, but I didn’t know why. Just kind of critical and just aggravated. And I realize that a lot of that had to do with, there was so much poured into me that was just sitting, and rotting. There has to be this flow, and it wasn’t creating the life in me it’s supposed to.”

Said King: “I just feel like for me in my search, reading the bible and trying to follow God and doing life, so much is about action and not talk. And I just get tired of the talk and doing the traditional service when we really could be doing so much and serving, actually, in the world.”

King points to , which she visited in May, as fueling her own desire to serve with others at the park near her home – as an act of worship.

“When you’re living in a community of people who are serving and like minded like that (serving in Haiti), something amazing just happens. And I wanted more of it. It feels really good to serve.”

Turner said, “We have this saying: We’re turning the church inside out. It’s kind of like we were centered on inward, which isn’t bad. You need to be centered—on working your devotion, regular relationship with Jesus. But the element that is lost in America and at Journey also, it goes hand and hand that you have to be pouring out to the people who need it, and giving yourself. If you don’t have two, you have a half thing.

“We’re trying to have the good that we have but also trying to discover what really is Jesus calling us to.”

What is this call? What is the new New Format?

“We have sheets and sheets of ideas,” Merk-Benitez said. “There’s just been this thing of, we have to get out of this room. It’s just ironic that our name is New Format, and let’s take that and move with something outside this room. Collier Park is just a first step.”

New Format is considering many things, from ministry to the elderly to service to those “superburned by the church” (Turner’s words, describing the gay community). King suggests hosting philosophical round tables.

While no movie nights are planned beyond June, several participants have committed to visiting the park regularly to develop the new friendships. And an event at Collier Park is tentatively planned for Aug. 2.

Setting aside the impact on the park, its dwellers and the surrounding neighborhoods, this is certain: New Format—which for years has gathered inside a church building on Sundays—will never be the same.

“Sarah and the rest have talked about this,” Saavedra said. “We’ve kind of gotten the sense that we just can’t go back and sit in our walls. And granted we want to be able to meet as a community and we want to be able to pour into one another’s lives and we want to meet those communal aspects, because we don’t think we can survive if we don’t have some way to be connected to one another.

“But at the same time, we don’t think we can go back to sitting in a church service, for two hours a week, and calling that God’s plan for our community. Because I don’t think that’s what it is. “

Said English, a lifelong Christian: “I remember thinking after the first week—I just felt like it was like the truest and rightest thing I’ve done in a long time. I feel like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ like I’ve discovered church.”

Questions and Answers with Minnaret King

Q: Is there a difference between this young La Mesa girl (playing in Collier Park alongside the movie on a Sunday night) and any of the 2-year old Haitians that you saw last month?

A: Those who don’t have anyone to love them, there’s a huge difference. They are starved for love. And you see kids who don’t get any adult attention. The being-hungry thing and the not-having-clothes thing is secondary.

Q: Are we winners of a spiritual, psychological and material lottery? And we have this blessing and a calling to share? Or is that too much?

A: I think there’s something deeply in the world that speaks to the idea of redemption, that we all want to be made whole I guess. Everyone is searching for something, and what it is, is not always easy.

Q: Are you saying we are searching from the different side of the same coin? Here we have addicts, homeless people, divorced, drifters in the park. Their searching and longing is a different kind. Ours is more of a benign, meaning-of-life kind of searching?

A: Maybe for some. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a huge difference. I don’t see an us and a them. I just see a we. You know, we’re humans, we exist here. I think we’re all basically searching for the same things.

Q: Well then, why do you need to be here to help them?

A: Why do I? It feels good to me. Obviously, I don’t need to be here. But you know, I want to be part of making something that’s maybe a little broken beautiful again, and useful, and for its purpose. Its purpose is so that people can come and enjoy it and not worry about—I don’t know—stepping on sharp things. Being safe.

Q: Are we like God’s partner in a restoration and reconciliation project or something?

A: Oh, I definitely believe so. I think we’ve been given something. I got a glimpse of what it looks like to be healed in my life, my soul and with finances and relationships, and I saw how praying and my search for God helped with that. And I think I got a taste of that in me, and I feel it in me to share it more. I haven’t found anything richer than knowing God and believing in that. That faith. I haven’t found anything more hopeful than that, you know.

Q: So is this about evangelism then? Is it enough to give someone an hour of listening and a cup of water, or is it really about saving their soul or showing them Jesus?

A: You know, I shy away from just telling someone about Jesus. I’ve met too many people who don’t live it. It was irritating to me when I didn’t believe about God. I was irritated.

Q: So in other words you can just give them a cup of water?

A: I think so. I think love without conditions speaks volumes of who God is, more than words can say. And I think sharing what you have and being selfless speaks more about who Christ is than words. I’d rather live it than say it.

Q: You did say that the greatest gift is the saving relationship with Jesus —that you haven’t found anything better—but yet you’re not leading with that. You’re kind of speaking nonverbally?

A: I would love for them to feel that redemption and see that redemption maybe in their lives, through me praying for them kind of quietly, and then they maybe say, ‘What is this thing?’ and say that it’s God. Because we put a lot of labels on things, but when you touch and when you see and experience something that’s real, and it’s healing in your life, you say, ‘Where did that come from? I experienced a little bit of miraculous thing,’ and I say, ‘What is that?’ Or, ‘Why does that person care genuinely and not have ulterior motives?’

Q: You are a longtime Journey member. Your parents were around when it was just starting, in the mid-90s. It has been known for an incredible Sunday performace—professional stage-show, good music and humor—but maybe not a lot else. Safe to say, there was no Journey Haiti, or the ministry in the park, until last year. First, is that a fair assessment? And second, is there a change, and how does movie night play into that?

A: I think there’s probably always been serving going on at Journey. I don’t think you can get around doing life with God without that. But I think maybe it’s just seeing the needs in our community and waking up to the power the church can have. And I don’t think it’s satisfied just to do a service. My community is these people, these college students, and doing this with them builds that, not necessarily sitting in a Sunday service. And I don’t know that I like that it’s a show.

Q: Aren’t you one of the worship leaders? Don’t you sing up there on stage?

A: I am. I am.

Q: Isn’t that a little ironic, saying you don’t like that it’s a show, when you’re in the show?

A: I think you need both. I think we need to gather together and worship God and thank him for things. But we need to hear truth. So service is important, the service we do on Sunday, but it can’t just be a Sunday Christian. You’re not biting into the richness of it.

Q: So you like this movie in the park?

A: I like it. And I have a lot of non-Christian friends who I can’t get them into a church. There’s just no way. They think the walls would fall in on them. And I say, ‘Yeah, but you could meet my other friends, you could get to know them and know that they are real.’

Q: So you think this is more conducive to them coming?

A: I think it’s a welcoming into a church community without making you come inside the walls. Because I think there’s a lot of bad stigma. And it’s really a place where you can talk more and search more with each other. I think like a lot of non-Christians I know are pretty bitter or have a weird view of what it means to be a Christ follower. And I want to show them not just with me but also with these wild people I’m around that you can be for reals. You can really live, try to live like Christ did and bring some good into the world. And it’s not just about being at a church.

Tiffany October 12, 2011 at 12:38 AM
I just wanted to say i am one of the Few females that hang out at that park and reading this i just wanted to say the group of people from journey that still conti to come down there and hang out and get to know us and dont judge us....i wanna thank you so much. You guys are awesome n have really helped all of us in some way. No need to explain you guys should already know. As for all you people who have never met us nor shook our hand and said hello you know nothin dont judge us. I will be the first to tell you not everybody at that park is bad or has a habit theres some of us that dont do ANYTHING.......but you judge us all. Ur wrong. Theres a few of us that do stupis things break bottles and so on and so fourth yea theres some fights every now and then. But were only human everybody in that park comes together as a family....we have lacked haveing one growing up and weve know eachother for years and its honestly a family not a gang nothin of the sort. I just wish whoever would just come down there and talk to all of us im no longer there any more but go talk to the kids tell them how u feel, they will talk to you. Once agian i wanna thank that certain few of people from journey that come down and hang out with us and play dominos and bring pizza and talk and just have a good time..theres not many people like you guys!! Once agian you guys are awesome!!!!! <3 T.

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