Material History of American Religion Project

The God Squad

The Christian faith has long had an interest in the economically deprived. Jesus and his disciples reached out to the poor of the eastern Mediterranean. The early church appointed deacons to care for the widows and the orphans of the community. Medieval monks opened hospices for the homeless. American Christians have continued this interest in the disadvantaged. The social gospel movement, the Salvation Army, the temperance movement—each tried, in their own way, to meet the needs of the poor. Not all of these movements may have understood the dynamics of poverty, and some may have been patronizing to the poor, but they sought to take care of the needy.

But how does the church deal with prosperity? The social and spiritual needs of the affluent are often very different from those of their poorer brothers and sisters. These may include alienation, peer pressure, and anomie. One response to the needs of the affluent is shown in this excerpt from Alice Gail Miller’s The God Squad (1969). Miller describes her work with a suburban Washington coffee house, doing ministry among the children of the capital’s wealthy. Coffee house ministry was a popular fad among the churches of the late 1960s. For youth and young adults it provided a place to "hang out" in a welcoming atmosphere. For the church it provided a way to be "relevant" to an often-confusing youth culture that operated largely outside the church’s traditional social context. For both it was a material response (providing food, drink, and a place) to a social need. This "Prologue" encapsulates a particular moment in time, a particular ministry to an affluent culture.

The church floor is littered with cigarette butts and pop-top beer can rings.

For a moment we are numb, overcome by the chaos of the empty room. Soggy paper napkins and chewing gum: wrappers lie discarded between the occasional pools of melting ice cubes and slopped-over cokes. Here is the unbelievable debris that could only be left by 250 teenagers and a rock 'n roll band.

Together with a small staff of teen-agers we are turning our swinging coffee house back into Saint Mark United Presbyterian Church. It is 1 A.M. and, like Cinderella's coach, I am slowly turning into a pumpkin.

"Becoming a youth group counselor was sheer insanity," I mumble to myself as I approach the girls' room and the odious task of returning it to at least semirespectability. Critics of ghetto residents and their "low standard of living" should see what a group of suburban girls can do to a bathroom in one evening. "Why did I ever volunteer for this crazy job?"

"Well, you always have been a little peculiar," agrees Stan, not letting the fact that he is my husband give him any hang-ups about loyalty.

"Because God called you, stupid," corrects Jim, better known to the kids as "Rev." No sympathy here.

"Oh well," I sigh, "some are called to serve in the mission field and some in more dramatic ways. But I am called to clean the john."

It has been a good night though, and the warmth of that knowledge transcends the fatigue. That warm feeling, however, is not without a certain poignancy, for in the squashed cigarette butts, empty cans, scarred walls, and bowed out window screens one feels the echoes of frustration, loneliness, and the psyched-up reality of teen-agers who have been waiting for a happening.

The whole crazy business had started three years ago with several teen-agers who had an idea and a few adults who cared—the church has never been the same since.

It was in this very same room that a group of concerned church members had gathered three years earlier—in a much cleaner, more antiseptic atmosphere —to hear a juvenile officer of the Montgomery County Police Department tell "How It Is in Montgomery County." Lieutenant John Bechtel was a tough cop using tough language that night when he described how things really were in our affluent community.

"This is the bedroom county of the nation's capital," he told the group. "Here in the wealthy suburbs of Washington are the sleeping quarters of the privileged, who spend the majority of their waking hours in Washington, D.C., and outlying areas where they work and socialize."

In the evenings they commute to their comfortable homes on the tree lined streets of Chevy Chase, Rockville, and Bethesda, Maryland, the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated suburbs in all suburbia. These are the possessors of the highest per capita income and the highest educational level of any county in America.

The golden children of all this prosperity drive to their shiny modern schools in their own late model Mustangs and Camaros, dressed only in the best Villager dresses, Weejun shoes, and London Fog jackets. But they are much too preoccupied to enjoy all this luxury. Each one is vying desperately for his or her own place in the already stratified society of a suburban high school. Money is seldom a problem. Mother buys all the necessary clothes, even if it means a second job to keep u p appearances. Dad exists to provide the car. And if Junior wants to get bombed on a fifth of gin he doesn't have to fake an ID card to purchase it. Dad's liquor cabinet is well stocked.

While Dad is working at IBM, General Electric, or the State Department, Junior is facing the pressures of his own peer group and the educational system.

Already he is under intense pressure to become part of the system. If he doesn't take the assigned set of courses and show sufficient leadership both in class and in his participation on the right athletic teams or in an adequate number of acceptable clubs and activities, he is not going to look so good on his college application. Already he must push to produce. If he is trying to get in a 'good' college he will have to compete against other high school students with similar backgrounds who are also planning to get in the same 'good' college. And dear old Mom and Dad, who have provided all these advantages, are right in there pushing. Heaven help the underachiever.

The upper middle class is not tolerant of underachievers. After all, ours are not disadvantaged homes. Would you want your son to be a blue collar worker? Worse yet, would you want your daughter to marry one, for heaven's sake? That would be letting down the middle class dream.

Just look at my poor friend Bryan, who was to become one of our coffee house regulars. His parents already consider him a failure at sixteen. They tell him so. By working steadily Bryan can just maintain his C average and still have time to goof off occasionally in his room under the strobe lights he installed himself, relaxing to the pulsating beat of his psychedelic records.

But Mama is crawling the walls.

"Bryan, you're never going to amount to anything if you don't try harder," she predicts, breaking into his sanctuary.

"Aw-w-w, Mom, I'm listening to this—"

"Why can't you be a good A student like your father was?" (Of course Father went to a small, rural, midwestern school more than twenty years ago.)

Va-VOOM Up goes the volume on the music.

"You'll never get into any med school or law school with your attitude." Her finger wags ominously. "Bryan, now you listen to me, either you show some initiative and responsibility or I'm cutting your allowance—and how many times do I have to tell you, PICK UP YOUR SOCKS!"

"Responsibility's a drag," sighs Bryan, ignoring the socks.

Too bad. Bryan has just been axed by the middle class dream. Med school isn't much of a carrot when what really turns you on is the Peace Corps. Trouble with the Peace Corps is that next thing you know the kid will want to be a social worker. And that's no status job.

When Bryan can no longer buy the value structure of his parents or the school system, he can always join the Student Alliance movement. Next year Bryan may be one of the alienated youth who picket the Pentagon chanting, "Work— Study—Get Ahead— Kill — Work—Study—Get Ahead—Kill." Or will he join the-ranks of the frustrated student activists picketing an allegedly unfair court hearing to shout, "Two, Four, Six, Eight, Organize to Smash the State?"

But don't blame Bryan's parents. After all they are t tying. Every week they send him to the psychiatrist. And that's something.

"The only person who will really listen to me," says Bryan, "is my shrink, and he gets twenty-five dollars an hour."

Ginny has her problems, too. She spent her earliest years- in- an orphanage where there was never enough love to go around.

Although she has been in her adoptive home for years now, Ginny still remembers all those nights she went to bed feeling unnoticed and unloved. All the Villager dresses and summer pool memberships of her present life cannot erase those memories.

Perhaps it is this unfulfilled craving for attention that makes Ginny talk louder, smoke harder, drink faster, and flirt more than any seventeen-year-old should have to. Or, perhaps she would do those things anyway. But that is where she is.

And that is where Pam is, too. Pam has had all the breaks of split-level living. Her father is a top level executive with one of the giants in the computer industry. Dad's a family man. He spends many quiet evenings at home watching television, sleeping on the couch, or grunting over his newspaper. Mom is busy, too. She's creative. After her pottery classes, advanced bridge lessons, and club activities, Mom even finds time to make paper flowers for the house.

Pam loves them both and goes her own way, alone. For the companionship and guidance she lacks at home, Pam has turned instead to her peer group. "Hey, you guys, I got the Mustang tonight. Let's go somewhere and have a blast!"

These are the youth Lieutenant Bechtel was talking about; the ones who are constantly searching for pleasure and release—for kicks.

The local Hot Shoppes, once teen hangouts, are now for many only jumping off points for more exciting things. The kids have discovered that they are not really welcome there anyway. Once their money is spent they are quickly shooed out as unwanted nuisances. The sophisticated youth now want to be entertained in a more adult atmosphere, which they are not yet ready to handle. So they run where the action is: to the joints of downtown Georgetown, where they can listen to acid bands and drink illegally. Or to Washington's Dupont Circle, where the hippies and drop-outs of society converge in a nether-world of drugs and big talk. Here the long-haired prophets speak sagely of the wonders of marijuana and its nonaddictive euphoria. For the more adventuresome there is easy access to acid, barbiturates, or speed. Name your own poison. This wholesome atmosphere is gleefully soaked up by the 'sophisticated' little teeny-boppers who are quickly learning to be the hippies of tomorrow.

"And that is how it is in Montgomery County," the Lieutenant told a hushed audience. "The widespread use of drugs, drinking, loose behavior, shoplifting and vandalism--it's not a pretty picture. And if you, the people of the church, are not interested," he asked, "who is going to be?"

But the people of this church were interested. The discussion soon polarized around the kids' idea of a teen coffee house where the youth of the community could come just as they were and be welcomed. We did not know it then, but Coffee and Confusion was nearing birth.

The Lieutenant was pleased with the idea but his next words held both a warning and an indictment. "Don't start something you can't—or won't—finish," he cautioned. "If you are not willing to pay the price, forget about it now." It was not until months later that we discovered how prophetic his words were to be.

"Don't buy this idea unless you're willing to go the whole way," the Lieutenant repeated. "You know, another Bethesda church opened a coffee house last summer. Everyone thought it was a real opportunity to minister to the youth of the community. Then some good lady of the church found a few empty beer cans in the parking lot. And you-know-what hit the fan. That was the beginning and end of that coffee house."

The Lieutenant looked at us with steely indictment in his eyes. "If you don't find an occasional beer can in your lot you're ministering to the wrong crowd," he warned, revealing a keener insight into the church and its mission than most of us in the room had.

"Isn't it the business of you guys to help those who really need it?" he questioned. The room was quiet with the uncomfortable silence that comes when the student has given the teacher a lesson. This tough cop, a policeman from the secular world, had defined the church's mission to us. Although, as someone pointed out later, it was not really a new concept. Someone else had expressed that same idea nearly two thousand years ago:

And Jesus said, "What man of you having a hundred sheep, if has lost one of them does not leave the ninety-nine and go after the one which he has lost until he finds it. When he has found it he lays it on his shoulder rejoicing. And when he comes home he calls his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep which was lost ' I tell you there will be more joy in Heaven over the recovery of one who was lost than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no redemption."

Alice Gail Miller, The God Squad (New York: Morehouse-Barlow Co., 1969), 17-25.

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