Updated after the jump: Photos of the Lincoln Ramp being dismantled, set to be U-Hauled — in sad little strips — to various parts of the Valley. Plus, the reverend's defense.
The riff-raff who frequent the Lincoln Ramp in east Venice Beach are feeling the wrath of god this spring. Or, at least, one of god's interpreters: the notorious Reverend A. Okechukwu Ogbonnaya (yes, that is his name; yes, the children at whom he wags his holy finger make due fun of him for it).
We have the honor of driving by the half pipe's cranny along Lincoln Boulevard daily — a flash of chain-link and plywood, graffiti and battle scars. Perhaps even more than Ed Ruscha, another city treasure recently run out by a parking lot, these kids put the art in Venice.
The skate park on the boardwalk isn't quite the same. Being the boardwalk, it's more a tourist photo op with a side of gang shootings. So… Lame. And this isn't the first time Ogbonnaya has tried to cleanse his United Methodist Church of scrubby youth:
In “Teens Worship in a Parking Lot After Venice Pastor Shuns the Skateboard Set,” Weekly reporter Tibby Rothman spoke with a set of perfectly religious Venice kids who, being Venice kids, had their own ideas about how they wanted to praise the lord — with raps, poetry and whatever else their zany little souls desired.
That didn't sit well with Ogbonnaya — so he forced the kids out into the church's parking lot.
Along the way, we might add, the new reverand has also eliminated a long-standing LGBT-friendly youth program and food-pantry services for the homeless. The skate park was next on his list, reported Rothman:
[Ogbonnaya's predecessor] Ziegert saw the skate ramp as a way to draw in the at-risk kids — not to convert them but to provide a sanctuary from gangs or other troubles, which he saw as ministering to them. The popular Ziegert thought all people who entered the church grounds should be respected, even if they were not pursuing a traditional religious track.
But Heidi Lemmon, head of SkatePark Association USA, which owns the ramp and is a tenant in the church's community building, says Ogbonnaya sees the skateboarders as a detriment — and is demanding that Lemmon remove the ramp.
Now, Lemmon writes in an email: “Well they won — the ramp is on tear down stages now. Kids are devastated.”
Writes the (somewhat kooky, but seemingly good-hearted) Peggy Lee Kennedy, a tireless bum and RV-dweller advocate, on the Venice Arts Council blog today:
The [Church's] Chair of the trustees, Patty Delli-Bovi, served Heidi Lemmon with a notice to seize abandoned property: the Lincoln Ramp and the Skate Ramp shed. I am absolutely sure Heidi was waiting for an eviction notice from this [not so nice] trustee chair person or the new pastor person. Anyone who knows anything knows Heidi did not abandon this property. Anyway, the Lincoln Ramp is going away now.
Basically, the United Methodist Church wants to exist in a little fairytale land (good luck, on Lincoln) where nobody's homeless and kids won't be kids. As long as all that restless inner-city mischief isn't happening on their premises — where it could, many feel, better be contained by a controlled environment — it's of no concern to the reverend.
Jonathan Zeichner, the former executive director of troubled-youth helper Inside Out, told the Weekly in December:
“Once the kids were there, they could get involved in any number of [positive] things. I don't think that it always worked perfectly, but it had value. There were kids who came and hung out there, who I saw out on the streets getting into trouble when they weren't on the skateboard ramp.”
Well, the scuzzy intersection of Venice Boulevard and Lincoln just lost the spark that made it ghetto beautiful — and the United Methodist Church has succeeded in making Christianity as unhip as possible in the hood.
Update: We went to go check out the wreckage Tuesday evening. As expected, it was a huge downer. Three or four kids from Thousand Oaks were prying up the plywood, for to transplant as much of the half pipe as they could in their own backyards, as Lemmon — who fostered the project — looked on.
(Lemmon tells us today that the parents of another young skater kid in the Valley are taking home some pieces as well.)
What they can't take, of course, is the inimitable mashup of street art that has collected here; the secret little room beneath the ramp, now baring its guts to the sunlight, as the Thousand Oaks kids salvage what they can; and the culture that has formed, seven years deep, in the nook between the United Methodist Church and the Boys & Girls Club.
The reverend was also hanging around, as usual, on Tuesday — on the other side of the fence, of course.
He expressed his frustration that nobody was considering his side of the story. Indeed, we watched one twentysomething with a skateboard walk in from Victoria Avenue, tell Ogbonnaya what a terrible person he was, then skate away all huffy without letting the reverend speak.
Here's how Ogbonnaya sees it: The kids come onto church property; they do drugs and cuss and flip him off; they leave behind trash, empty 40s, porn mags and all sorts of unmentionables. You know, kid stuff.
So why should the reverend — who holds a PHD in theology, who is trying to make the United Methodist Church in Venice back into a safe, desirable place to worship — tolerate that kind of treatment? Especially when he's paying $1,000-something per
month year for ramp insurance.
It's a culture clash if we've ever seen one. Unfortunately, the ramp is gone now, and the two camps are even more bitter toward each other than before.
Ron Stebenne, a youth minister from Orange County who sings the praises (no pun intended) of what he calls “skate ministry,” says that, when done right, a simple ramp do wonders for a Christian community.
“Teen boys have a tendency to test their environment,” Stebenne says. “A person like the pastor — someone, we hope, with common sense and decency — can step in and redirect that energy in a positive way.”
He adds that “churches sometimes treat non-churched kids as 'the others,'” in turn missing a golden opportunity to help them out.
On the other hand, Ogbonnaya, who's technically in charge of the property, feels skater punks are driving away potential church members.
But in a neighborhood like Venice, a hotbed for counterculture, says Stebenne, skater punks are the people. And “in the eyes of god, they are worthy.”
Originally posted Mat 10 at 11:40 a.m.