By Marge McRae, Runner Up in the Response Essay Competition 2008
Reports of shootings, break-ins, muggings, or drug-busts on Seattle’s Beacon Hill made the evening news way too often. “What can we do about this?” asked the residents at a meeting of the ethnically mixed inner-city neighborhood.
Dano and Jennifer Jukanovich, a sharp young couple who look like they’d be more at home in an all-white suburb, stunned their neighbors — and even aroused skepticism — when they said, “We’ve decided to host a weekly barbeque for the kids at our house this summer.”
“That’s stupid,” said one of the folks.
“These kids have homes,” another said. “They don’t need yours.”
The community liaison to the police department shook his head, adding, “You’re opening your home and yourselves to being abused, and you might even be held liable if something goes wrong.”
Dano and Jennifer left the meeting discouraged, but remembered the Scripture, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), and “It’s not by strength, nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6). One of their neighbors encouraged them and even apologized for the discouraging comments.
They printed up flyers and walked around handing them out to teens. They posted one on the gas station across the street, and on the fence of their 1920s modest home that said:
Beacon Hill Youth – You’re Invited To
Hang-Out Night at Dano and Jenn’s
Every Thursday Night This Summer.
Free BBQ dinner and ice cream sundaes.
Street basketball, pool, art crafts, & games.
Why? Why not.
Only rules: No alcohol, No drugs, No fighting.
The very first night went well, but afterward they discovered Jennifer’s wallet had been stolen. “We assumed this one kid stole it,” says Dano. “Word got out that we thought it was him, and the whole gang didn’t show the next week. Then the leader came to us and said, ‘I told these guys you were different — that I didn’t get you, but that you were cool and they should come to the barbeque. Then they get accused of stealing.’
“That pierced our hearts,” Dano continues. “We apologized and asked for forgiveness. That surprised him. But they all came back the next week.”
Racial tensions lurked just below the surface, and the couple discovered certain combinations of kids could easily light the fuse. “So we needed to be alert and stop it when it first sparked — even call the police if we needed to,” Dano says.
The Jukanovichs have not only been stretched but also taken aback. “One 21-year old guy looked really tough,” Jennifer says. “We asked him how he spent his time, and he said, ‘I’m a home care worker. I went into this field because my good friend has multiple sclerosis. So now I take care of her.’ We would have never guessed that one.”
Neighbors ask Dano and Jennifer why they do this. They tell them, “The kids are bored, so we thought we’d give them a safe place to hang out and have fun. Besides, Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and so we’re trying to be faithful to that.”
Some kids come early like Ngoc Diep, a petite Asian girl who helps Jennifer carry food to the buffet table on the city sidewalk. Last year, she came every week and barely said a word. This year she is one of the first to arrive and last to leave. While still quiet, she is much more animated and engaged. Jennifer has made her the official “art director,” allowing her to choose media the kids can work with at the craft table.
As soon as the gas grill is lit, James, a 14-year-old African American steps up and turns the hot dogs and flips the burgers with a flair and confidence that expresses pride and ownership.
The Jukanovich’s 3-year-old adopted Chinese daughter, Lian Mei, is also a great bridge-builder to these children. She loves the interaction with those who look more like her than her Caucasian parents, and the kids ask a lot of questions about her adoption. When she sees teens that she doesn’t know at the grocery store, she asks, “Are they ‘our kids’ too? Will they come to the barbeque?”
“Before we started Hang-Out Nite, we’d see Jamal, a young man walking past our house,” says Jennifer. “We exchanged hellos, but never really connected until he began coming Thursday nights the middle of our first summer. We organized a neighborhood clean-up one Saturday, and he and Dano spent two-and-a-half hours walking around the neighborhood talking and picking up trash. Four months later, he was shot to death.”
The couple went to his funeral and saw all the kids for whom they’d started Hang-Out Night. “The pastor talked about not taking revenge and using this time of reflection to choose to follow Jesus,” Jennifer continues. “But he didn’t give them the tools to do that. We left feeling even more burdened to be the kind of neighbor where the kids can see Jesus and eventually talk about him. We just hugged the kids and said we were sorry. We can’t explain it, but it felt like we earned their respect and acceptance that day, and we realized how much we truly love these guys.”
Six months later, Jamal’s girlfriend stopped by the Jukanovics’ house to show them a picture of her and Jamal’s 3-month-old baby. “She told us she was in shock at the funeral and didn’t even know we were there,” says Jennifer. “She was very touched to learn we came. We talked for about 45 minutes, and I just encouraged her. I haven’t seen her in two months, but that is the way it usually is.”
“We have conversations with the homeless, and one older prostitute comes by often,” she continues. “Just last week she told me that we treat her like no one else in the neighborhood. We see what’s inside of her, not what she does.”
Just before dark, Dano hangs a sheet on the fence. “We show an inspirational movie, and then, when it’s over, we wrap it up,” he says. “Some kids stay around to help put the equipment away. Or if a kid wants to stay and talk, we’re open for that. That’s really what we’re here for.”
Marge McRae says that after a neighbor told her about the Jukanoviches’ Hang-Out Night, she tracked down the couple and got their story firsthand. A prolific writer since her husband of 40 years died 15 years ago, Marge has been published in Mature Years, Light & Life Magazine, and Live. She is a part-time editor for Youth For Christ and West Puget Sound, and the mother of three grown children.
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