Chicago is a burly, physical place. And for the city’s abused, neglected and troubled youth, the problems are big, too: gangs, guns, drugs and teen pregnancy.
To this rough-edged reality, the Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes is bringing an invisible balm – the healing power of spirituality. Fowlkes, an Episcopal priest, is the new director of spiritual formation at UCAN, a CHHSM member with a history of serving Chicago’s youth since 1869.
Fowlkes' spiritual formation work isinterwoven with UCAN’s array of services and programs aimed at healing trauma, educating children and families, and preventing violence. UCAN, a social service agency funded by government grants and contracts plus private contributions, works with more than 12,000 children, youth and families in Illinois each year.
Spiritual formation, Fowlkes says, is not about teaching religion. It is about nurturing an awareness among the agency’s staff and clients
“Whatever we do in life should help us build character and become better people,” he says. “Not better in the sense that we were worthless to begin with. But better in the sense that we can step into a much deeper humanity. And that depth of humanity is what calls forth the very best of who we are.”
UCAN’s philosophy is expressed by its mission statement: To build strong youth and families through compassionate healing, education and empowerment. UCAN believes that youth who have suffered trauma can do more than recover. They can become leaders.
“We’re an agency that’s making a difference by helping young people know who they are and the great potential they have." Fowkles says.
Since spiritual formation is a new effort at UCAN, Fowlkes is working on several fronts to make it a vital and defining dimension of the organization. His plans include creation of an ‘office’ of spiritual formation to provide data, resources and support for staff and clients. The effort will include teaching about UCAN’s history, its ties to church history and the basis of its spiritual practice and spiritual formation with youth.
In addition, Fowlkes is organizing an affinity group and advisory board consisting of clients, UCAN board members and members of UCC to spread the word of spiritual formation’s role and assist in the work. He is also seeking to strengthen ties to the United Church of Christ through CHHSM and connect with other faith communities through volunteer programs.
Fowlkes says one of the mistakes adults make in trying to help young people is that they tell them things, but don’t listen to them. When you listen to young people, he says, you hear their spirit and realize their power to change.
“We can learn a lot by listening to the yearnings of young people and being open to the fact that they have ideas, passion and the energy to change the world," he says. "I think of recent events in Cairo, Libya and other parts of the Middle East. We should not forget that these protests were largely organized by young people who, interestingly enough, also felt hurt and abandoned. Yet look at what they’ve accomplished. At UCAN, we often reinforce with our young people that they have a voice, and it’s a tremendous asset in affecting positive change.”