The Encounter: Not a church, but more than a skate parkYou don’t have to be a card-carrying Christian to utilize the Encounter. In fact, you don’t even have to belong to any organized religion to hang out there.
By: Matthew R. Perrine, Budgeteer News
You don’t have to be a card-carrying Christian to utilize the Encounter. In fact, you don’t even have to belong to any organized religion to hang out there.
“A vast majority of the kids that come through our doors are not believers or don’t belong to any church or don’t want anything to do with any particular church,” explained Peter Cpin, one of three directors at the youth center. “It’s very open. We are just here to build relationships with these kids.
“Christian or non-Christian, everybody is welcome to come. We don’t card anybody — you know, like, ‘Are you a Christian?’ [Laughs]”
Another misconception about Youth for Christ’s downtown center Cpin helps run: It’s nothing more than an indoor skate park. While that aspect of the Encounter operation may be its biggest draw — kids the region over show up to tear it up with their boards, bikes or blades — its 38,000-square-foot space at 201 E. First St. has a lot more to offer. Whether they want to play some ball, take hip-hop dance lessons from Jesse “Halo” Smith, catch a show or down a highly caffeinated concoction, there are plenty of options for youth at the former Aad Shrine Auditorium building.
“The Encounter is extremely unique within the Youth for Christ organization, because there are very few centers that do all the things that we do,” Cpin said. “I think skateboarding was probably the key part of the whole plan all along — how it would work, where it would fit.
“... Once we found this building and saw the space and the things that we could do, the gym and the gym activities came along, the different coffee house ideas and the music venue spots — all that stuff kind of fell into place afterwards.”
And, going back to that first misconception, kids of all spiritual leanings can enjoy the Encounter’s many offerings. Cpin, who’s been with the organization for five years now (it will celebrate its seventh anniversary Nov. 13), said attractions such as the skate park, the gym and its two music venues are simply tools to bring youth in.
“The way that we see ministry happen is just through building relationships with the kids,” he told the Budgeteer. “It is a slow process, but we find it to be the most effective with the kids who come in here … because they have so many hurts, and there are so many things that they have dealt with or are dealing with.”
Cpin continued by saying that although the Encounter isn’t meant to replace traditional houses of worship for its guests, sometimes more-substantial conversations do take place within its walls. That is, it’s not all fun and games.
“We like to provide the opportunities for them to learn and for them to see how the Bible applies to things that they’re dealing with,” he said. “So, we talk about a lot of relevant things, whether that be drugs and sex or marriage or lust or money or whatever — I mean, you name it, we’ve probably talked about it.”
The $10.47 dream that could
When Youth for Christ’s local youth pastors dreamed up an indoor skate park for Duluth, about the only thing they had going for them was enthusiasm.
Writing in a history of the Encounter, Mark Pavola, who is the executive director of Youth for Christ’s Head of the Lakes chapter, said: “It was a meeting I will never forget. It was one of those rare times when I realized that what I was involved in was taking on a life of its own. I don’t want to over sensationalize it, but I know I’ll never forget it.”
Though the organization only had $10.47 to its name, the youth pastors remained steadfast. They wanted Duluth to have a place for kids to be able to come, have fun and, most importantly, be safe.
“That original core group of youth pastors really wanted to do something relevant, that would draw kids in and maybe even fit a need in the area,” Cpin said.
Through two years of planning and prep work, it was decided that Youth for Christ should take on the project, ensuring that the Encounter wouldn’t be directly associated with any one church. Once that was decided, the group moved on to another big decision: where to build.
“I don’t think any of us had ever purchased commercial property before,” Pavola, again, wrote in the history of the Encounter. “In fact, most of us had probably never purchased any piece of land before. One thing is for sure, Head of the Lakes Youth for Christ had never owned real estate before.”
They started looking in the Canal Park area — especially at the former Grand Slam building — but it would be actually be a chance meeting with Gary Doty that would “bring them home.” Doty, then the mayor of Duluth, took it upon himself to arrange a walkthrough of the Shriners’ building at 201 E. First St.
“Mayor Gary Doty was a big help at the time,” Cpin said. “This is perfect for us; it’s an amazing building.”
Although the building wasn’t even technically for sale, Doty had told them that the Shriners were looking to get rid of it. But it came at a price, of course: $350,000. For a group that barely had enough money for a dinner for two at McDonald’s, that figure raised a few red flags.
In his Encounter history, however, Pavola recalled one of the youth pastors saying something that brought the whole price tag situation into perspective: “Brian Bustrak made a statement that clearly impacted the way we looked at things. He said, ‘Don’t ever let the money, either too much or too little, determine your course of action. Let the vision carry you.’ What a great statement. It really boils down to faith.”
Cpin said that next phase of the Encounter’s development was “a little bit of a process.”
“But that was fine,” he said, “because it gave us time to raise funds and be able to afford a down payment of any sorts. … Buying a nearly $400,000 building with no money is always a little bit of a walk of faith, I guess you could say.”
But they did it. Through donations from individuals, businesses and churches, Youth for Christ was able to raise about $250,000 to buy and renovate the building (the rest of the money came from a bank loan).
“A lot of our first year here was just purely renovating, bringing things up to a usable state,” Cpin said. “It was not meant for kids at that time. [Laughs] There were huge chandeliers that hung in the gym, and the skate park was all parking garage stuff.”
When the Encounter finally opened in 2002, Pavola told the Duluth News Tribune’s Linda Hanson that the Encounter was something God wanted him to do.
“I’ve seen more of his work in the last six to nine months than ever before in my life,” he said. “It builds up your faith. The most important thing is this will help kids and bring a sense of faith and hope into their lives.”
NEWS TO USE
The Encounter is located at 201 E. First St. Call 722-9820 or visit the Web site www.encounteryfc.com for the organization’s full fall schedule of events.