The sirens wail directly outside, but no one notices. Sirens are as common as clock chimes. Then the train rattles by, shaking the walls and momentarily drowning out the noise in the large concrete building beside the tracks.
In a small room upstairs, simple discussions become heated debates, and truth seems to be determined by the loudest person. One girl is kicked out after making too many harsh comments about another girl. The week before, there was a fight, and two other girls were dismissed permanently. It's Monday-night Bible study.
Also at the table sits Tracha (pronounced TRAY-sha) Butler. She doesn't yell like the other girls. She even raises her hand occasionally. When they need pencils, Tracha brings the jar to the table. At the end, Tracha picks up the empty cans of soda and bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
Her deep brown eyes hide experiences and knowledge that a 17-year-old shouldn't have to know. Crime. Poverty. Injustice. Racism. Tracha doesn't always smile, and she sometimes lets her thick hair hang in her face.
But when she does smile, it's full and whole-hearted, revealing a joy and energy that stands out among the surrounding brokenness of the community.
Tracha has lived her entire life in Chicago's inner city, a hard place that can leave a person defeated, frustrated and caught in a cycle of generational poverty.
But Tracha is different. Cru staff members have been loving and mentoring her since she was a 3rd-grader. She has a relationship with Jesus, and though still in high school, Tracha gives back to the same place that helped her grow.
Born and raised on the far South Side of Chicago, Tracha was riding the city bus alone at age 10. When she heard shooting, she learned to hit the floor. And she learned to fight.
Even with friends, she would fight on a regular basis. Her best friend Lisa Robinson once pushed her into a car so hard they left a dent.
"We wasn't fightin' each other, we was strengthenin' each other up," she says with a laugh.
But Tracha also had a lot of anger.
"You think those girls on Monday nights are scary? I used to be way worse," she says, setting aside her street slang to make her point. "I used to cuss out teachers and fight all day."
She threw one of her elementary teacher's books out the window, and she failed the 4th grade.
But from 3rd grade on, Tracha continued to come to the Agape Community Center. As part of Here's Life Inner City, Cru's urban ministry, the Agape Center helps equip churches and other ministries to reach people like Tracha.
One of their strategies is the S.A.Y. Yes! center, an after-school program for elementary students (S.A.Y. stands for Save America's Youth). There are 11 other S.A.Y. Yes! centers in Chicago, and a total of 100 have been started around the country.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon, about 40 elementary students from the community gather for games and homework help. But most importantly, they hear about God. They learn Bible stories, sing songs, and even memorize a Bible verse each afternoon.
"S.A.Y. Yes! is not just an after-school tutoring spot or a safe place for children to play after school," says Ted Gandy, national director of Here's Life Inner City. "The focus is on long-term development-development of character and development of spirit."
Tracha is a perfect example of that long-term development. She may have come in the beginning just for the indoor basketball courts, but she kept coming back because God was working in her life. As Tracha grew in age, she also matured spiritually, mentored by the Agape staff.
Tracha frequently spends time with her current mentor, T-awannda Piper, a 31-year-old Cru staff member. Everyone calls her T. One evening Tracha comes over to T's house for dinner, needing help with her biology homework. But first they talk about boys.
Tracha is hesitant to reveal any details about a certain boy at school, but T continues to press. Then the truth comes out -- he gave Tracha a ride to the Agape Center, and T gets very direct in expressing her concern about this young man. She challenges Tracha to make wise decisions about dating, and emphasizes staying pure.
It might seem like T is overreacting to the car ride, but she wants to help Tracha follow Christ completely, and for a young teenage girl, relationships are an important part of that equation. In the inner city, many teens must parent themselves, so relationships can lead to sex quickly.
"It's easier for me to talk to Miss T about stuff," Tracha says. "I don't got the best family."
Tracha's grandmother lives just a few blocks from the Agape Center, but she doesn't like visitors. Tracha stays with her during the week and with her mom on the weekends.
In her mom's apartment, one green plastic chair sits in front of the television. Tracha and her 12-year-old sister share a room, alternating between a cot and a blanket on the floor. A few snapshots of friends and torn-out magazine pictures are taped to their bedroom walls.
"Some of these kids are living in situations they're not even talking about," says T, referring to the rest of the S.A.Y. Yes! kids.
"They don't shoot around here as much as they used to," Tracha casually explains. "They used to shoot every night."
The few businesses all have bars on the windows. Trash is scattered in empty lots, and many houses are worn out or boarded up.
But all the Agape Center staff members live near the center, and most of them have even bought homes in Roseland, showing a lifestyle commitment to the community.
And Tracha's commitment to Roseland also shows as she mentors students at the Agape Center. One afternoon, 3rd-grader Tyree Belcher is avoiding his math homework, so Tracha sits down with him.
"Don't listen to this kid if he tells you he has to go to the bathroom," says Josh McQuaid, another tutor, who is also helping another student.
Tracha points Tyree's head toward his book and pulls his pencil back to his paper.
"Now finish your homework," she says. "Pay attention. This is how you set it up, alright, buddy?" she explains.
And Tyree slowly starts to add up the numbers, although he needs continual prodding.
"He behaves a lot better for you than he does for me," Josh comments.
"That's 'cause I threaten him," Tracha laughs. "Just kidding."
Milton Massie, director of the Agape Center, realizes the impact of having students like Tracha help the younger kids: "Salvation is free, but so often it's taken for granted. This gives them a chance to give back. They can be patient with the kids as they remember someone being patient with them."
Tracha's friend Lisa Robinson has the same kind of story. The 15-year-old freshman grew up along with Tracha, coming to the center every week, and now she also tutors the kids in the S.A.Y. Yes! center.
"The center has really helped our character," Lisa said. "I went to church when I was little, but it wasn't until I came to the center that I really understood it."
In elementary school, Lisa prayed and received Christ while at the Agape Center.
"We both crazy," Tracha says, laughing with her friend. "We came from being bad, to being really bad, to being good. And we still crazy!"
Just like someone helped Tracha and Lisa while they were growing up, they are now giving back and helping other kids who will grow up and hopefully do the same. And the staff members at the Agape Center will continue to mentor Tracha.
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