“I make better choices now,” says Twin (name changed to protect his privacy), a member of Sixth-Grace Presbyterian Church’s Barbershop Raps Mentor Program, reflecting on his participation in the ministry.

Twin, a high school student in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood near the church, joined the program last summer when Sixth-Grace and local community organizations began an outreach ministry for young men ages 12 to 19.

Twin had been tight-lipped with his thoughts or feelings in rap sessions, group conversations between the young men and adult mentors, according to the Rev. Bernard Clark, a Baptist pastor and  community organizer who is one of the program’s collaborators.

But a few months into the program, Twin began jumping into discussions and opening up. “I really like coming here and hearing you talk about life,” he told the group. It helps me “when I’m faced with challenges.”

During the monthly events, the members receive haircuts from barber college students, share a meal, check-in with mentors and have a conversation with a guest speaker, such as a neighborhood leader or local artist.

The idea for importing the barbershop from the street corner into Sixth-Grace’s fellowship hall was the idea of the Rev. Patrick Daymond, pastor of the congregation. The barbershop, an important social institution in African American communities, has long been a place for meeting up, socializing and discussion among African American men of all ages — all of which were goals of the mentor program Daymond wanted to develop.

Daymond had a vision to work with youth in the Bronzeville neighborhood surrounding the church. He asked himself “How can we get the youth in [the church] and give them a comfortable place to talk about issues and life?”

Incorporating a barbershop — a monthly opportunity to get the latest styles, trims and haircuts — with a traditional mentor program was an initial draw for youth in the neighborhood. The speaker and mentors “meet [the youth] where they are and build a link with them in order to expand their choices about life,” Daymond says.

The program grew from 15 participants last June to 45 by the fall. “When you consider that there is desert and void in the lives of young men, it’s not a surprise that the program has grown so quickly,” says Clark. “This program offers guidance, a free haircut and dialogue with role models and a meal every time.”

While many churches and community organizations can have compatible goals for community outreach, collaborations between the two can be complicated, says Clark.

“Pastors say they want to [be involved in the community] but there isn’t follow through” because pastors have no time outside of their pastoral duties, and they don’t allocate staff or church members to the role, Clark says. “With Sixth-Grace, it’s a blessing to see a pastor who has a vision to partner up with community-based organizations and religious organizations for the good of congregation and community.”

Barbershop Raps is a provocative endeavor within the Bronzeville community and for the congregation of Sixth-Grace, but it is also an inspiring ministry within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), because it responds to the needs of individuals beyond the walls of the church.

“It is contextual with young people and shares the gospel and is cognizant of the fact that to transform lives you have to engage young men,” says the Rev. Jerry Cannon, church specialist for African American congregational support with Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries. “Patrick represents another generation of young adult pastors who bring a new approach to ministry.”

Sixth-Grace Elder Clifton Wilkes, who is integrally involved in Barbershop Raps, describes this new approach as a “shared vision and collaboration” with other men he grew up with in the neighborhood to provide opportunities for youth in Bronzeville.

In addition to Sixth-Grace, other collaborators include Caines Barber College, Williams Youth Services and the Center for New Horizons, as well as a dozen men from the neighborhood. “We didn’t expect it to grow that quickly, but word is out about Barbershop Raps and kids look forward to mentoring and dialoguing, and they want to make program theirs,” Wilkes said.

One goal, Wilkes said, is to motivate the young men to become leaders and role models at a young age. 

Sixth-Grace and the Barbershop Raps program have offered a variety of activities, including a back-to-school fair for students and their parents, 3-on-3 basketball tournaments, and ongoing leadership development through the monthly meetings.

While some Barbershop Raps members and their parents have attended Sunday Services, Wilkes says the church plans on offering more events that are “in the spiritual realm.”

But, he says, “first you have to gain some trust and build and foster positive relations. We want them to know what we are about — we are a church whose doors are open to all people.”

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter