Many parents today find themselves in a domestic culture war. They're on one side. Their teens are on the other.
In hip-hop artist Righteous B — otherwise known as 27-year-old Bob Lesnefsky — the grownups have an ally in this struggle.
And so do the kids.
Lesnefsky began bridging the generation gap after trying to bring the Gospel to street-hardened youth in New York using traditional approaches. Eventually he had to concede that the teens weren't responding. That's when he decided to give rap a go.
What began as a lark has now produced two records (“Are You Ready for Righteous B?” and “Get the Kids to Revolt”) and many concerts at Catholic-youth events across the country.
Righteous B spoke with Register correspondent Scott Powell soon after releasing a duet with Franciscan Father Stan Fortuna honoring Pope John Paul II. It's called “The Great One.”
You minister to both suburban kids and inner-city ones. What common challenges do today's high-schoolers face that others before them didn't?
Every generation, to some extent, is going to face the same problem: They need Jesus. However, one of the things that make that problem so difficult to solve for today's teens is that they are inundated with choices. From value-meal options, to cell-phone plans, to soda flavors, to cable TV — this generation is the result of a society that each year seems to revolve more and more around self. In this kind of atmosphere, Christianity becomes merely another option that, with the help of pop-culture relativism, stands on equal ground with any other “lifestyle choice.”
The other big challenge in ministering to Generation Y is the lack of real communication in their day-to-day life. Any good youth minister will tell you that the backbone of successful ministry is being able to build relationships with teens. However, “hanging out,” the favorite pastime of teens a generation ago, is now replaced with chatting online, Instant-Messenger conversations and text messaging. These are all quick, non-substantial and anonymous forms of communication. They give the facade of intimacy, but lack any real depth, creating a huge problem when it comes to ministering.
Even when trying to use their modes of communication, it doesn't quite fit. Asking a kid about his relationship with God on Instant Messenger is out of place in a world of made-up three-letter words and smiley-face symbols.
What techniques have you found that work in reaching out to these kids?
The best technique is to use their culture, not to throw the whole thing out and merely hand them a Catechism. I think today's teens respond well to conversational catechesis, where we catechize through day-to-day relationships rather than through programming. This is not to say that structured teaching is obsolete, but, in an attention-deficit world where blurbs of conversation are the norm, I find kids responding better to stories, witness and conversation.
What do you think these kids are really looking for out there?
Intimacy. Despite the issues teens have with real intimacy, they crave it. They are starving for experiences of it. This is a major reason why we see casual sexual partners or “friends with benefits” as such a huge trend. Teens lack experiences of intimacy, whether with friends or in their families as a result of divorce and deadbeat parents. This is what I see teens running to the Eucharist for: intimacy.
Generation Y has been called a very spiritual generation, though not particularly religious. Do you think this makes them more receptive to the Gospel message than other generations or less?
Being a “very spiritual” generation is garbage. Today's generation of teens is the product of a pop-psychology, pop-spirituality culture — which boils down to a mixture of TV psychologists, fortune cookies and some cheesy preacher telling us God wants us to smile more. The result is a bunch of people wearing some hip and trendy cross they bought at Urban Outfitters who think they're living the Gospel yet wonder why their life isn't like a page out of Chicken Soup for the Soul.
I think they are still apt to receive the Gospel message in their hearts, but the problem with this pop spirituality is that it's very superficial. Because of this, we see teens living very superficial spiritualities. There are a multitude of teens who know how to be “spiritual” — how to go through the motions of youth group. They know the songs and the hand motions; they know the small-group lingo and they know their prayer. But it's very shallow. On the outside, the “more spiritual” generation seems more connected — but oftentimes the roots are shallow.
The plus side to this generation is that spirituality is at the forefront. It's not just a subculture anymore. It's become mainstream in a lot of ways. Jesus is a rock star right now. He's all over the hottest T-shirt lines and all over the airwaves from rap music to rock. So to be “into your faith” is okay today right now, and that's a very good thing
You recently recorded a memorial song about Pope John Paul II with Father Stan Fortuna. Maybe you could say a few words about JPII and his ministry to youth in light of the new recording.
JP2 — he knew today's teens very well. He spoke to them about intimacy, He spoke to them about sexuality. He spoke to them about relativism and our culture of selfishness. But most of all he spoke to them about hope — not in some flaky way, where we all light a candle and think good thoughts about the world. When he talked, the young people of the world about hope. He told them they were the hope.
In a world that writes off the youth as lost and hopeless, he spent the majority of his papacy proclaiming that they were the “morning watchmen” who would usher in the dawn of a new ecclesial springtime. And it was he who said over and over again that, in these days, the Holy Spirit would usher in a time of new evangelization, an evangelization that would be met with great fruit.
To me, that's vision! An 84-year-old man who, seeing the darkness of youth culture, still calls them the light of the world.
Scott Powell writes from Denver.
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