Program meets inner-city youths on their home turf

It’s Tuesday night in Steubenville, Ohio, and about 80 teens, mostly African-American, are packed into the gym of a former Catholic school. Old televisions cover one of the walls. Some feature video games. Others old music videos. A swing hangs from the ceiling. The music — classic Motown — is loud, and a few teens are dancing. More are gathered around the table where free hot dogs are served.

It looks like a club, and it sounds like a club. But it doesn’t feel like a club. There’s no drinking, no drugs, no hooking up. Just laughter, conversation … and prayer.

The prayer comes midway through the night. A man in his late 30s with more than a few visible tattoos delivers a simple message about Jesus, makes it relevant for the teens with an anecdote to two, then asks the crowd if they have any prayer requests. One teen shouts out, “For my mom.” The crowd says, “Amen.” Another teen speaks up, “For my baby.” Again, the crowd says, “Amen.” And so it goes as one young person after another voices their intentions.

That’s a typical Tuesday night at the Urban Underground.

The Urban Underground is the brain child of Bob Lesnefsky — the man with the tattoos — and his wife, Kate. Part youth center, part safe house, it serves as the base for Dirty Vagabond Ministries, the apostolate the Lesnefskys founded six years ago to help inner-city youths. There are three more just like this one — two in Brooklyn, one in Greenville, N.C. — and collectively they welcome about 2,000 teens annually.

Living the part

The vision behind Dirty Vagabond has its roots in Schenectady, N.Y., where Lesnefsky and his wife went to work as youth ministers after graduating from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Although the pastor who hired them described the parish as “urban,” the Lesnefskys were surprised by the level of violence and drugs they encountered among parish youths.

“At first we were just banging our heads against a wall, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into,” Lesnefsky said. “But eventually, we fell in love with the kids.”

Over time, that love grew into a vision for youth ministry that took the Gospel out of parish basements and into the streets.

“If you want to reach kids in the inner city, you can’t do things according to the book,” Lesnefsky said. “You have to step into the mess of their lives, become a part of their world. After you’ve done that, you can share the truth of Christ with them. That’s what Christ did in the Incarnation.”

And that’s what Lesnefsky has been doing since 2007 through Dirty Vagabond Ministries.

Each of the four existing Dirty Vagabond sites was planted in the middle of an urban community plagued by poverty and crime. At least two missionaries — one male, one female — serve at each site. During the day, they go out into the neighborhoods. On Tuesday night, they host the large gatherings at the Urban Underground. On Wednesday night, two smaller groups meet. One group is a Bible study. The other is an RCIA class. On Sundays, the missionaries hop in their bus and pick up the kids who want to go to Mass. Some are Catholic. Some aren’t. But the buses are always full.

“You’d think the kids would be bored, but they’re not,” Lesnefsky said. “They’re fascinated by the ritual, they love the priests and have tons of questions. They’re intrigued by it, and always tell me, ‘It’s cooler than black church.’”

After Mass, the teens and missionaries sit down and eat together, the only sit-down meal most of the teens have all week.

Physical, spiritual poverty

The teens themselves come almost exclusively from broken homes. A couple of years ago, Lesnefsky asked the missionaries in Steubenville to collect as much data as they could on the kids who participated in the programs. Out of 400 kids, only one lived with both his parents.

“The statistics are staggering,” said Lesnefsky. “They just don’t know the dads.”

They do, however, know poverty. Most live in government subsidized housing with a parent or grandparent on government assistance. A few live in homes with no running water.

Hunger is common, which is why Lesnefsky makes sure to provide food at every event. But hunger isn’t the biggest problem these kids face.

“Mother Teresa said that the greatest poverty is to feel unwanted,” Lesnefsky said. “That’s the poverty most of our kids feel. It wreaks havoc in their lives. They don’t get that God loves them, because it seems like no one does.

“But when they start to discover that they are loved, that’s when you see the biggest transformation,” he added.

And there are transformations aplenty. Each year, dozens of participants enter the Church. Even more escape from the cycle of crime and violence. A few now dream of becoming priests. A few more serve as missionaries themselves.

Step into culture

One of those missionaries is Woody Levy, 20.

With one older sister addicted to drugs and another older brother dealing drugs, Levy said he was heading for a life of the same, when the the promise of free hot dogs led him to a Dirty Vagabond event.

“At first, it seemed too good to be true,” he said. “I’d never experienced love like that. But eventually I saw it was real. That changed everything.”

Two years later, both Levy and one of his younger brothers entered the Church. A year later, his youngest brother followed suit. Today, Levy works as full-time lay missionary at a youth camp in Georgia, but hopes to return to Steubenville one day to work with Dirty Vagabond.

Allison Johnson, 18, has the same dream. Like Levy, the promise of free food and a safe place first drew her in. From there, the Eucharist kept her coming back.

“In the Masses they took us to, I got to experience God in a whole new way,” she said. “I felt love like I’d never felt love ever. I wasn’t willing to let anyone take that away from me. I wanted to be baptized, wanted to receive the Eucharist, wanted the whole thing. I didn’t want to sit in Mass anymore and watch everyone else receive it.”

Today, thanks to the help of Dirty Vagabond missionaries (as well as the generosity of others), Johnson is a sophomore double majoring in psychology and theology at Franciscan University.

“I know we don’t look like your typical youth ministry program,” said Lesnefsky. “But John Paul II said that if the Church holds back from the culture, the Gospel will fall silent. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to step into the culture of the inner-city, the corners where no one else wants to go, so that the Gospel doesn’t fall silent there.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. For more information, visit
dirtyvagabond.com.