Opening day for a Pokémon gym in Austin

July 13th, 2016

This morning was a typical Wednesday at Berkeley United Methodist Church in South Austin. When I pulled into the parking lot, though, there was a new sight. A teenager sitting on a skateboard staring at his phone. A few minutes later, another small group of kids came sauntering along and sat down on a curb. Two weeks ago, I would have been really confused at how seemingly organized the meeting looked. “What are these kids planning?” I may have thought to myself. Today, though, I simply looked at my phone and saw that a PokéGym had opened up at the church.

Most have you have seen reports about this viral sensation. Many have also seen accounts of what churches can do in order to capitalize on the fact that suddenly people are coming to our doors who may have never been to church in their lives. I had read those same accounts and downloaded the game a few days ago in order to try and understand a little about the sensation. When I first approached the kids, a few stood up to walk away. I could see on their faces that they were worried that I would ask them to leave. I also saw in their faces the look of a generation unfamiliar with the church. They may think of Christians as people who tell others what they can or can’t do. They may think of Christians who ask kids to be quiet and to pull up their pants. It was a profound moment of grace to be able to say to these kids, “You are welcome in this place.” We talked about the game. I let them know they could come inside and they were very grateful. I don’t think they expected kindness from a Christian. The lives of those two kids may have changed, all because I told them they are welcome here.

The church sign on the road says. “Come all who are weary, and I will give you rest.” Within the hour, we had set up a station at the spot of the PokéGym with chairs, cold water and a welcome set to let people know they can come inside to use the facilities or charge their phones. This is not an evangelism strategy. This is not the secret to reaching millennials. I'm not trying to stay relevant, only give water to people who are thirsty. We often use language like that metaphorically, but in Texas especially, people playing Pokémon Go are physically thirsty and tired, yet they still play. The least the church can be is the kind of place that gives shelter to those who pass by, even when they stare at their phones the whole time. Hospitality is not a means to an end. Hospitality is an end in itself: sharing water with the thirsty, giving shelter to the tired.

I don’t know how long our gym will last. I didn’t ask for it (I couldn’t figure out how and I can’t tell you how to get a gym). I don’t know how long kids are going to come by to sit under the shade of our trees and fight Eevees against Charmeleons (for the record, my Charmeleon is awesome and really close to evolving). But while it is there, we are going to welcome all comers. We will give water and a seat and a friendly reminder that they are loved. And when the next viral sensation comes and people are doing things with technology we could never predict, we will still be here, giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, shelter to the tired, hope to the lost.

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