A hangout for Christian teens

GenXaret: In a dance floor at the bottom of what was once a Navy testing pool, young people come together for fun, service and religious activities.

March 28, 2003|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

About 12 years ago, Ray Jordan was looking for space to locate his nonprofit organization when he walked into an industrial building on Red Branch Road in Columbia and saw a large indoor pool that no one appeared to want.

"No one knew what to do with the building because of the pool, and as soon as I saw it, I said, `That's perfect for young people. They'd really enjoy this,'" said Jordan, founder and executive director of Athelas Institute, a program that provides services for developmentally disabled adults.

Jordan's idea was to use the building for more than the Athelas program. He wanted to turn the empty 100-by-30-foot pool and the area around it into a teen hangout and venue for Christian youth ministry.

The building's former occupants were contractors for the Navy and used the pool to check the effectiveness of icebreaker ships by layering wax on the water to run simulations with scale-model boats.

Jordan moved Athelas Institute into the building in the early 1990s, but it wasn't until the fall of last year that his dream for a youth ministry became a reality. That's when an outreach group formed by several churches for teens, dubbed "GenXaret," began holding events in the newly renovated pool facility.

GenXaret "is an organization that is basically providing a network for Christian youth groups to come together for activities ... [and] for small youth groups to come together with other ones so they have more of a critical mass, maybe to do different types of programming," Jordan said.

The group sponsors dances, movie nights, coffeehouses, praise-band concerts and service projects in a safe, Christian environment, he said.

"This was an opportunity to create a [nondenominational] network within the county of Christian youth groups," said GenXaret board member Ann Dunn. "Our goal is to have people from a lot of different churches involved on the board and involved in what we're doing."

Members from several area churches volunteer at GenXaret events, but many of the fledging organization's volunteers are from Glen Mar United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, where Jordan and Dunn are members.

Athelas Institute designed, built and funded the renovation of the pool area, turning it into an unusual gathering place. The floor of the pool has a wooden dance floor and a lounge area with tables and chairs. There are ledges along the sloping sides of the pool for seating, a fully equipped sound and light stage, and a jumbo screen for movies or live video projection of events on stage.

The pool bottom is accessible via wide steps or a lift for the disabledfrom an open concession area above that features a dozen arcade-type video games. A party ambience is created with dim illumination, accented by star-shaped lights above the stage, a disco ball and a bank of lava lamps.

"Just because you are a Christian doesn't mean that you don't have any fun," said Rigel Welk, 18, who attends neighboring Grace Community Church and is one of the GenXaret leaders. She said the goal of GenXaret is to "encourage [teens] to let their hair down, enjoy themselves and praise the Lord."

Welk helped pick the name for the facility, which she said the kids at first called "the fish pond." The young people chose GenXaret as a catchy permutation of the name of the biblical Lake Gennesaret. Also known as the Sea of Galilee, Gennesaret was the site where Jesus promised his fisherman disciples that they would become "fishers of men."

"So we were like, `that's perfect,'" said Welk, speaking of the group's Christian ministry. "We want to be fishers of men."

GenXaret's biggest event was a "30-hour famine" last month.

Dunn said youths from eight Howard County churches raised more than $11,000 on behalf of World Vision, an organization that combats hunger. The hundred or so teens collected money from sponsors for the time spent fasting. They experienced what it was like to be hungry, drank only juice and other liquids during the 30 hours and spent the day volunteering. They shoveled snow, worked at a recycling center, visited a nursing home or helped in area children's programs.

Last weekend, a group of teens from Trinity Episcopal Church in Elkridge returned to GenXaret for a "Christian Techno Dance Party."

Josh Herb, 17, Heidi Woodall, 16, Loretta Stafford, 15, and one of their youth leaders, Christina Bly, 23, said they had returned to GenXaret because they enjoyed the 30-hour famine and thought the meeting place was a "really good idea."

Saturday's party had a low turnout, but the Trinity Episcopal students figured the place just needed more publicity.

"I think a lot of people would come, actually, if they knew about it," Woodall said.

A GenXaret coffeehouse is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. May 2 and a concert, with Daniel's Window, is planned for May 17. For information about events or affiliation, contact Ann Dunn at 410- 465-4995 or visit www.genx aret.com.

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