When people began to advocate for safe spaces in Nigeria for those dealing with depression, I could relate. I remembered reading about neighbourhood community centres in the US.

In some US states where kids are at risk of suicide or gang initiation, the community leaders realised something. Many children do not turn to gangs or suicide because of adversity. Rather, they do so because they feel alone. They see no other options. There’s nothing else to look forward to, and so they give up hope. The leaders realised that community centres could serve as an “escape” or a “break”. The opportunity to play basketball for a few hours after school, provided a way for some kids to gather emotional strength, before returning to dysfunctional homes. Having a counselor to speak to, provided temporary affirmation and in some cases, permanent intervention. Mixing with kids from other backgrounds opened up a new world of possibilities. It caused some kids to imagine a future beyond their present environment.

In Nigeria, church has traditionally played a part in providing an escape route for troubled teens. Many learned to play musical instruments in church or joined the choir to spend time away from home.

When I was a child, there was a family of poor kids in my neighbourhood that was always in church. With the benefit of maturity, I now understand why. They needed to escape. Last year, I went on an inspection of Ashoka Changemakers projects with a group. I met a girl programmer. My group visited her tiny apartment in the heart of Isale Eko, which housed her siblings, parents and grandmother. We wondered how such brilliance could emerge from such difficult circumstances. Her mother said something during the visit that provided a clue. She said her daughter was always in church and loved hanging out with her choir mates. Through church, she developed a worldview that was bigger than her tiny face-me-I-face-you apartment.

So many churches have huge car park spaces and auditoriums that are only used for a few days a week. I wonder what it would mean for a generation of kids, if those churches drew basketball lines in the car parks. I wonder what joy would be injected into the community, if kids could stop by for after-school classes and lunch. Imagine what a library could do to shape young minds.

Some churches already do some of this, but call it Summer Camp. Why not do it all year round? Surely they have the space for it and willing volunteers. If each church member volunteered for at least one day a year, we’d have big brothers and sisters to mentor the kids.

Would a company whose CEO attends church, be willing to donate lunch? Maybe. Would a diesel supplier be willing to donate some to keep these “community centres” running every day? Maybe.

I pray pastors begin to see physical churches as more than just spiritual centres. They can become tools through which God reaches a hurting world. A new generation of pastors is coming. I hope they do things differently.

Churches can provide an escape route for troubled teens by providing safe spaces for sports and creative expression. Click To Tweet