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    Despite risk, area pastors say duty is to help troubled

    By SHARON TUBBS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001


    The Clearwater shooting that left one man dead and a church family devastated Tuesday has some area pastors thinking about their own youth evangelism programs and the potential risks of luring troubled teens into the sanctuary.

    "It keeps your guard up," said Bruce Humphrey, pastor for student ministries at First Christian Church in Clearwater. "It creates a paranoia about kids you don't know."

    Like First Christian, churches across the Tampa Bay area have created programs that encourage troubled teens, some with criminal pasts, to participate. The hope is that the youth will change. The problem comes when they don't.

    "There is a risk," said the Rev. Ricky Franklin, associate pastor of youth ministries at Victorious Life Church in Wesley Chapel.

    But risk often can't be avoided when doing God's work, Humphrey and Franklin said. Churches don't routinely do background checks. Even if they did, some pastors say, they have a duty to help the troubled.

    The very nature of witnessing to young people leaves churches vulnerable, said Tim Jennings, youth pastor at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks. Teens in the church are encouraged to bring in friends who might have behavior problems, he said.

    "That's what we're here for is to help people," Franklin said. "We're not here to be a beacon unto ourselves."

    People at Hope Presbyterian in Clearwater wanted to help William Scott Lang. The teen runaway recently joined the church and was welcomed by several families. Other members mentored Lang and shared the Gospel. It seemed their evangelism was working. Until Tuesday.

    It's the kind of thing no one expects, but some churches prepare for anyway.

    Victorious Life hired a deputy to patrol their grounds during weekly youth services. Leaders at First Christian Church work with new youth in small groups and one-on-one for about six months, before the teens can take part in large-scale events with other youth, Humphrey said.

    At First Baptist, there is always one adult for every 10 high school students at teen events. "We're very much on guard all the time," Jennings said. "Just because of the school shootings and whatever."

    But troublemakers are few, pastors said, ticking off examples of teens who changed because of church programs. Often, pastors said, teens just need a second chance.

    That's what the Rev. Joseph Teague believes. Now a pastor in Miami, Teague was the head of Trinity United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg when Emory Carter set fire to the church during the 1996 disturbances. Teague urged a judge to show Carter mercy.

    Carter, then 17, was sentenced to boys school, only to be resentenced to an adult prison after misbehaving. Last year, Carter was charged with first-degree murder.

    "Yes, he screwed up," Teague said. Still, Teague said he did the right thing in trying to help him.

    "You don't know when someone's going to go bad," Teague said. "If you're suspicious of everyone you help, you won't be helping anybody."

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