One of my greatest joys through the Servant Year program has been discovering the people and culture of breaking in Philadelphia. In my Servant Year placement with the Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative, I oversee the Houston Center Teen Lounge, an after school drop in center for youth ages 10-23 years old. The Teen Lounge’s genesis as an undefined space for teens has been shaped by the desires and creativity of neighborhood youth to ultimately become one of the proving grounds for the breaking community across Philadelphia. In my brief exposure to breaking, most commonly known as ‘break dancing’, I have come to realize how much deeper this improvisational culture goes. Much more than someone in parachute pants doing the ‘worm’, breaking melds together various cultural influences not limited to Spanish salsa, African American Soul music, Irish step dancing, Asian martial arts, and Brazilian capoeira.
Breaking breaks down into four different categories of moves. Toprock represents anything preformed from a standing position. Footwork is anything done on the floor involving feet and hands for support. Power moves are more acrobatic maneuvers that utilize momentum, speed, and strength. Finally, freezes are any position where the breaker holds a pose and does not move, often supporting themselves with their hands or feet. In this framework, b-boys and b-girls craft together routines and rounds that build off a foundation of commonly known moves and integrate a person’s own unique style and inventive maneuvers.
Due to the closure of a major high school located near the Teen Lounge, our program’s focus has shifted from high school aged youth to local middle school and elementary school students unengaged in traditional after school programs. A lot of these students have not fit into the formal regimented after school programs funded at most public schools. Most of the students who we serve now, we met playing in the streets outside our center. They wanted their own freedom and choice after school rather than following another schedule of snack-time, homework help and club activities. I strongly believe that breaking has been an ideal fit for these students’ desires. They want to learn, they want community, they want to express themselves, but they do not want to be told how by an adult. They want to discover. They make me think about jazz and it’s similar origins as an improvisational art form that came out of the desire from African-Americans to reimagine classical European instruments into new vehicles for self-expression by blending various cultural influences and breaking the existing structures of music. Each day in the movements of our budding b-boys and b-girls, I see my heroes like Coltrane, Miles and JJ perfecting their craft.
Being in this laboratory of expressive experimentation and improvisational creation, I could feel my soul being tugged back to the creative arts I have been blessed to receive in my life. In the early months of my year I had a stronger desire to practice my trombone than probably any of the twelve years previous when I tangled myself in jazz bands and concert bands. Something about being around that creative energy was contagious and pulled me back to that part of our God-given identity that calls us co-creators made in the image of a creator. We are creative beings designed to create and share of ourselves with others. We just need to find our vehicle of self-expression and sink our roots into the river banks of our Creator’s flow. The great fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien emphasized the idea of “sub-creation.” In producing his fantasy works he sought to develop a coherent, consistent secondary world. He described this process of sub-creation “as a form of worship, a way for creatures to express the divine image in them by becoming creators.”
This past holy week, a great friend and I took part in a Good Friday tradition of pursuing another one of our shared creative vehicles. We took our addiction to winter sports exploration to one of the remaining wildernesses for snow schussing in the Northeast. Nine hours of driving and two hours of hiking brought us to the Shangri-La of spring east coast shredding, Tuckerman Ravine. It was my fifth journey into the glacially carved bowl that snuggles up to the tallest mountain peak in the Northeast. Here a series of gullies and snow fields hold on to the last canvases of winter awaiting the brush strokes of the few ski and snowboard junkies looking for a final space to carve out their masterpieces. We channeled our creative energies and painted a few lines down two of the rock walled gullies to seal our final memories of the 2014 winter season. We left exhausted, but filled with a sustaining sense of satisfaction that has stayed with me through these past two weeks. It encourages me in light of our over-worked and over-stressed society, the importance of remembering whose image we are made in and to embrace the worshipful life-giving activity of creating!
Nate's Ministry Placement is as Community Outreach Associate with The Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative.
I never have lived in a place where public transportation was an accessible and reasonable option for travel. Where I grew up, we didn’t have sidewalks either. The only methods of transportation I knew were my family’s mini-van or my trek 820 mountain bike which I only used to ride down the hill I lived on to visit friends (I never was physically blessed with the ability to ride bikes successfully up hills).
Also where I went to college in rural upstate New York, public transportation was nonexistent. The campus was located on its own small hill without any roads traversing the campus, only walking paths to connect all the buildings.
Coming into the Servant Year program, embracing public transportation seemed to be one way to live out the program’s commitment to ‘living simply.’ I began the program living in Germantown, a northwest neighborhood of Philadelphia, and working at a placement in South Philadelphia. What would have been a 21 minute car ride from home to work (according to Google Maps) ended up being around an hour long commute involving two buses and a subway ride. In those days, I was spending about two hours a day just traveling to and from work.
On the positive side my work days were buffered by an hour of time for contemplation, reading, and people watching. For adjusting to the challenges of my placement and the new experience in the city, it was really helpful because it created a space for me that I don’t think I would have made otherwise. I call it a space because it was a time in my day where I was pretty limited in what I could do.
I don’t have a smart phone, so there was no way to pass the time checking my Facebook feed or playing CandyCrush like the majority of SEPTA users. One of those long commutes I experienced a certain kind of peace and freedom that came from knowing there wasn’t much to do, my options were limited, and I was not in control of when I arrived at my destination.
I spent a year traveling the globe prior to Servant Year and really fell in love with the freedom of the travel space. I found I could be in the present moment, rather than overwhelmed by a multitude of distractions or objects for consumption. Purchasing a bus ticket in India became an act of surrendering one’s control and submitting to the perilous manner of driving embraced across the National Highways. Here in Philly I can’t remember how many times I have stood on the corner of Broad and Erie waiting for the H or XH bus to come or how many times I have walked the final ten blocks to my work because the 79 bus never came.
In travel you’re dependent on something outside your control and more often than not it does not conform itself to your desires. Instead of fighting for control, I’ve been learning to embrace the dependency and rest in that still space. On the train or in the bus I’ve tried to find the still space for my mind to rest, and experience the freedom in being limited to my present surroundings.
I’ve always thought about this freedom and surrender like the freedom we have in our relationship with God. We submit to God’s commandments in order to experience the freedom Jesus proclaims in Luke 4 and what Paul touches on in Roman’s 8 as we live out our identity as children of God. True freedom doesn’t come from the absence of rules and isn’t fully experienced without surrender. Does using public transportation help us understand the surrender God asks of us and the freedom Jesus was talking about? Can you really see the connection of submission and freedom from the backseat of SEPTA Bus? Don’t take my word for it. Just buy a token a take a ride.
Nate's Agency Placement is with The Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative.