PAL offers hope

PAL offers hope
I attended an event for our local Police Athletic League (PAL). PAL’s stated goal is to “fill playgrounds, not prisons.” From what I’ve been able to tell, it relies mostly on adults mentoring the kids through baseball, football, track and field events, cheerleading, and after-school programs that offer one-on-one tutoring as well as anti-drug messages. The original goal of having kids interacting with police officers in a positive way seems to be intact, although most of the adult volunteers appear to be civilian.

At the event there was a stage set up with numerous musical acts and one obnoxious DJ. Well, he called himself a DJ, but he was really an MC. Not Hammer, a master of ceremonies. He didn’t spin any records, he didn’t do much rapping outside of some lame poem he read about gun violence, and he had a total of two jokes that he told over and over again.

The event drew a huge crowd for what it was, I’d say well over 300 people were there, mostly kids. They were mostly black and mostly under the age of 15. A few older kids were there as volunteers. And, I have to say, it was the best behaved group of kids I’ve been around in a long time. I’m sure having the area ringed with police cars, and the armed officers that came with them, from various units, including SWAT, helped, but it wasn’t the uneasy good behavior you see from people acting differently than normal, it was the easy good behavior from kids who are at peace with the situation. In other words, the cops and kids seemed to be good with each other.

And this with the specter of rioting and looting and chants of “Kill White Cops” going on in Baltimore, MD and in all the news media in our homes. It was good to see.

The jarring note, and what sparked me to write all this, is the musical entertainment, and the tiny crowd that gathered to pay attention to it. Every single act had a Christian theme to it. The lone rap artist. The country music bands. The a capella group. One of the country bands was particularly brazen about it, with every song being a tribute to their god or Jesus in some way.

Meanwhile, four adult women were standing in front of the stage, waving their arms and giving positive feedback to the musical acts. Yes, four. The rest of the adults, and there were far too few of those present, were wandering around the vendor tables, eating food, or trying to find someplace out of the reach of the Florida sun on a cloudless day.

The kids were playing. PAL had set up basketball hoops, a football toss, and three different bouncy house vendors had donated equipment, all of which were constantly busy. There were even pony rides. As I watched, the bigger kids seemed inclined to let the little kids play with them, without direct supervision or somebody telling them to do so. And I didn’t witness a single argument or fight about the games. Now, I might not have seen the catalyst for this remarkable behavior, but I wandered around too and never saw any adult supervising the play areas.

So I wonder, what was it that was causing those kids to act in a way I didn’t act when I was a kid. It certainly wasn’t the overt Christianity blasting from the speakers on the stage. As far as I could tell, not a single kid paid any attention to the musical acts. And it wasn’t the firm hand of an adult keeping tabs on the basketball games and other play areas. And I don’t think it was the perimeter of police cars, which seemed more like a protective barrier keeping the outside world out than a restraining one. The armed officers mingled with the crowds, chatting, or kept to themselves out by the cars.

I can’t form a valid answer from just this one encounter with PAL. I can only note what I saw. But it makes me want to get more involved with PAL, if for no other reason than to find out if this good behavior is normal or not, and, if it’s normal, what is happening to cause it.

My earliest hypothesis was that this group of kids came from households where the parent figure cared enough to enroll them in such a program. That what I was seeing was the group of kids with the best chance to be successful in growing up without getting involved with crime in some way.

But it also made me reflect that Christianity promises power to the powerless, and hope to the hopeless, and made me think about what a herculean task it is to replace that powerful message of mystic triumph with a more useful grounding in objectivity and logic. I mean, it’s way easier to dance around and sing songs of praise than it is to think through events such as the Trayvon Martin shooting. It’s much easier to march and chant and demand somebody do something than it is to wait and reflect on the events that are sparking the periodic riots we’re seeing across the country and then do something yourself.

And, finally, it made me wonder if we even need to challenge that mysticism that gives hope to the hopeless. I know losing my faith was as traumatic as the death of a family member. Is it more cruel to give people a false sense of hope but not the tools to deal with the actual problems, or to give them the tools to fix what’s wrong and take away their easy path to hope and joy, false though it is?

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