James Allen Walker for WORLD

A rock in a hard place

2010 Hope Awards | In a neighborhood filled with hopelessness, Rock Ministries provides consistency, family, and more

Issue: "Tilting at turbines," July 17, 2010

PHILADELPHIA-The Blue Line El that runs overhead casts a permanent shadow over North Philadelphia's Kensington Avenue. On the side streets it's a beautiful late-spring day: The sun is shining, the air is warm, a few cotton-candy clouds dot the limitless blue sky. It's almost possible to forget that you are standing in Kensington, one of America's worst urban slums.

But under the Blue Line that illusion can't stand. The gloom emphasizes the grime. An abandoned textile factory, windows broken and insides gutted, looms over bars, pawnshops, and check-cashing emporium. Cars snake down the street, screeching and honking and blaring hip-hop, but the noise can't compare to the truly deafening roar of the train overhead, or the cacophony of car alarms that follow the train's vibrations.

Rock Ministries is located a block away from the corner of Kensington and Somerset, a notorious open-air drug market. But stepping inside the ministry's building is like stepping into a different world. There's light bouncing off shining hardwood floors. The noise comes from laughter, from the slap of a jump rope, the squeak of a sneaker, the rattle of the speed bag. The Rock, as it's known in Kensington, is a boxing gym. But unlike other gyms, the Rock doesn't want to train fighters. It wants to save souls. "We catch them with the boxing and the Lord cleans them up," Rock co-founder Buddy Osbourne says.

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Osbourne is stocky and bald, dressed in a T-shirt and gym shorts. When he smiles, which is often, his eyes all but disappear into his face. These days he sometimes bursts into a praise song while walking down the hall, but his jolliness accompanies the underlying strength that made him a champion amateur boxer in this same Kensington neighborhood: "I grew up in Kensington. I had no father," Osbourne says. "I am what these kids are. I lived this life."

Boxing saved Osbourne, an eighth grade dropout, from his worst vices: no more smoking, drinking, or sniffing glue. But boxing encouraged what he calls his underlying "propensity for violence," so Osbourne found a job that gave his violence free reign: He became a "union organizer" (even today he can't say the words without a sly smile). The federal government recognized his talent and indicted him for racketeering. He served five years in prison.

Osbourne became a Christian and finally left behind his past. Together with co-founder Paul Orr, a former weightlifter, Osbourne purchased a long-abandoned sporting goods store on Kensington Avenue and opened the Rock, hoping to use the allure of boxing, always popular in the city setting for the six Rocky movies, to bring kids to Christ: "Our target is kids from the 'hood who have a hood mentality. They think that to get somewhere they have to beat on somebody. That's the bait. Give us the toughest kid in the country and we'll break him down in three weeks, then build him back up again."

It's five o'clock on a Thursday evening and training is about to begin. Kids line up at the door, sign themselves in, park their bikes in a corner behind a treadmill, and filter through the gym. They lace up their sneakers and tape up their hands. A few volunteers circulate through the room, but the kids do a good job of managing themselves. If they need help, older kids give them a hand. Rock intern Woodie Marcus says, "In this gym you can feel the difference. You walk in and see people sparring but you don't see anyone yell or scream. This is a learning environment. You look and see people training and being organized."

The program uses a pyramid progression to build leadership among its pupils. Tuesdays and Thursdays are open to all with only one requirement: Stay for Bible study. After 12 sessions kids become eligible for core groups, which meet on Wednesdays. If they progress with their boxing they can join the boxing team, which competes in Golden Gloves and Junior Olympics tournaments with some distinction.

At the core are the interns, all 18 and up, who live in ministry housing and train to become urban missionaries. With each level comes privilege (the locker room is reserved for members of the boxing team) but also responsibilities. "When a new kid shows up we got to help them out," Marcus says. "They want to come at us because we're authority. We pull them to the side where they don't have any leverage. We take them to the side and talk to them."


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