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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.
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."
The program offers more than boxing. Children too young to train in the gym can spend evenings upstairs in a reading program. The Rock has been renovating its building room by room for the last five years, with a music room, a computer room, and an art room in various states of completion. There are plans for residential quarters for the interns and an apartment for a boxing coach.
Adults who circulate through the gym, and Christian murals on the walls, reinforce the Rock's ethos, but it's mainly enforced by the kids themselves, no matter what age. One rule in the gym is that cursing earns you 10 push-ups: "They monitor themselves," Jimmy Sherman says. "If they catch a kid cursing, they'll make him do push-ups. It gives them a sense of direction, of right and wrong."
Sherman is a prototypical grizzled trainer, the Mick to the Rock's budding Rockys. His voice rasps and croaks, his skin is sandpapery, his hands and wrists are swollen and discolored from years on the heavy bag. Almost every night he can be found at the Rock, training kids. "I see the glory of the Lord even in Kensington," Sherman says. "These people feel like they're forgotten, but God hasn't forgotten them. And I feel privileged to be here and remind them of that."
Kids also get reminding through a worship service: Sweaty and tired, they sing praise songs. Then they sit and listen quietly while worship leader Craig Cerrito delivers a short homily: "We know life isn't easy. When you have a problem, I want you to be encouraged, because Jesus is real." Then he prays and invites kids up for an altar call: No takers tonight, but the message is out there, and the kids are listening. Whenever they are ready, the Rock will be there.
That consistency helps the Rock to combat the hopelessness that surrounds life in Kensington, both on the streets and at most of the children's homes. "Fatherless homes, families with multiple temporary father figures, brothers and sisters from different fathers," Orr says. "Some families are so messed up from alcohol and drugs that the oldest kid is raising the other kids." The Rock is a constant presence in an otherwise constantly shifting world, Osbourne adds: Kids "come, they go, they come back. They know we're always here. We're a family. For some of these kids we're their only family."
Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the Northeast regional finalists.
To view a video profile of Rock Ministries and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit WORLDmag.com/compassion.
Rock Ministries Factbox
Location: Philadelphia, Pa.
Mission: Bringing inner-city youth to Christ through boxing
Size: All volunteer-run; 3,000 children served since 2005
Budget: $400,000 per year