From Chicago basement to international stage, the power of collaboration fueled a Latino-led nonprofit working with youth

For almost a decade, I’ve enthusiastically followed Streetlights’ journey as the organization’s innovative Latino leaders re-imagined the audio Bible, infusing it with the vitality of hip-hop beats and showcasing diverse and authentic voices. Their artistic vision and dedication to placed-at-risk youth speaks directly to my heart.

Born from a vision in a basement 17 years ago, Streetlights has grown into a thriving nonprofit with an $800,000 annual operating budget, 75,000 newsletter subscribers and 430,000 app users worldwide, according to its leadership. It has achieved international influence, reaching 18 million plays of its audio Bible — currently in Spanish and English — with plans for more languages. Beyond the audio Bible, its initiatives also include the Corner Talk teaching video ministry and a music ministry through its touring band, ALERT312.

ALERT312 is a music ministry of Streetlights.

How Streetlights expanded from basement dream to international reality offers a powerful learning opportunity for us all, including for my own role as an executive director. Since visiting the Streetlights studio in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin community last fall, I’ve gleaned valuable lessons in organizational leadership and capacity building from its inspiring story of collaboration.

Esteban Shedd, Streetlights’ co-executive director, said his vision emerged from the disconnect many youth in his community felt toward the Bible. They found it inaccessible — difficult to understand and hard to relate to culturally — with a lack of engaging resources. Shedd, inspired by the scripture “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17 NKJV), envisioned a culturally relevant, bilingual audio Bible for the digital-native generation. That led to the development of artistically rich digital tools that engage young people from urban communities in their heart language.

Streetlights app
Streetlights has 430,000 app users worldwide.

Shedd patiently refined his vision over two years, supported by prayer, discussions with leaders and family, and in-depth research about resource production. He waited for the right moment — confirmed by the Spirit and community support — balancing the demands for action with the wisdom to nurture the vision, anticipating when peace and faith would align.

The catalyst came from a friend at GRIP Outreach for Youth, a faith-based nonprofit working with Chicago’s young people, who suggested that Shedd speak with that organization’s executive director. This conversation ignited Streetlights’ inception, leading to a series of conversations and careful planning with GRIP’s board. Bolstered by their support, including covering his salary for a month, Shedd was offered precious time and space. GRIP evolved into an incubator for Streetlights.

But, Shedd said, it was a challenging decision for some in GRIP’s leadership, given that GRIP, too, works with urban youth in underresourced neighborhoods. The initial wariness that the partnership might strain GRIP’s limited budget eased after a board member highlighted how Shedd’s culturally relevant Bible project aligned with GRIP’s mission, offering new ways to serve youth.

Shedd said those who were hesitating realized that the organizations’ missions weren’t separate but an opportunity for unity; they came to see GRIP as part of a larger, interconnected ecosystem. Strategic planning for the partnership began, focused on communicating clearly and engaging stakeholders, crafting a framework that equipped GRIP to effectively navigate and adapt in this new role.

album cover The Lord is Beauty
ALERT312’s album cover for “The Lord is Beauty.”

This was also a leap of faith for Shedd. Newly married and juggling his roles as rapper and hip-hop group leader, he committed to Streetlights despite the economic uncertainty for his family. Through prayerful consideration, he and his wife found peace, understanding that vision and conviction are crucial in Christian leadership and may precede funding. Trusting in God’s call and in GRIP’s leadership, Shedd entered into a mutually affirming partnership, where he knew that his vision would be honored, with no attempts to change, control or compete against it.

GRIP’s support meant more than guidance — the executive director and board offered spiritual backing, mentorship, friendship and essential connections for the work ahead. Shedd vividly remembers Scott Grzesiak, GRIP’s founder and then-executive director, providing unwavering encouragement during uncertain times, which was vital to persevering.

In that crucial first month, Shedd devoted countless hours to developing Streetlights’ business plan, capturing its vision and how it would fit within GRIP’s fiscal umbrella. Thanks to the supportive environment provided by GRIP, Shedd was able to avoid some of the typical challenges that organizational leaders face — playing multiple roles and wearing various hats, risking feelings of isolation amid a flurry of meetings, swinging between exhaustion and exhilaration as the vision takes shape.

Out of the Tension... Comes Beauty
ALERT312’s album cover for “Out of the Tension… Comes Beauty.”

During this phase, Shedd harnessed his skills as a hip-hop group leader for strategic planning and building social capital. He laid the groundwork for capacity building and sustainability by earning trust from leaders, forging connections in Bible publishing and engaging in effective fundraising. And he wisely focused on community and collaboration, as he sought advocates both within and beyond GRIP.

Shedd initiated scaling efforts, taking on odd jobs with friends to contribute toward the salary for Streetlights’ second team member and leveraging his artist community ties for a digital audio Bible demo’s fundraising. This pivotal first year set Streetlights on a path toward resilience and significant growth, focused on mobilizing resources, managing finances and coordinating volunteers.

What began as a one-month commitment became a nine-year dynamic partnership between GRIP and Streetlights. Within GRIP’s abundant and creative embrace, Shedd and his co-leaders, Loren La Luz and Aaron López, transformed Streetlights into an autonomous organization. As with Acts 2:44-47, Streetlights and GRIP united under a common vision, sharing resources, celebrating collective successes and meeting their community’s needs with joy and gratitude toward God.

The partnership between Streetlights and GRIP exemplifies the power of unity, faith, generosity and a mutual commitment to enhancing capacity. It underscores how organizations can come together to create transformative outcomes.

Streetlights’ journey inspires me to broaden my organizational leadership views, sparking questions like: What resources do we have to empower others? Where can we find partnerships to build essential support systems and strengthen our capacity?

Rooted in Christian values, such an ethos of collaboration reminds us we are not meant to tackle this journey alone. Together, we grow stronger, shaping a future that transforms capacity building, where collective progress and innovation become our common goal.

sound mixing
Streetlights’ leaders reimagined the audio Bible to reach a younger audience.

The warehouse, a cold, nondescript concrete block of a building, is incredibly loud. Skateboarders create a relentless din as they thrum from one end of the space to the other, rumble down plywood ramps and slam against the concrete floor.

Over the course of a week, upwards of 75 young skaters, from early elementary kids to young adults, will come to Serious JuJu, a skateboarding ministry and worshipping community with a name as alternative as the skaters it serves in Kalispell, Montana.

Barry Williams, 32, takes a break from skating to play chess the skate park.

They practice their tricks, have a hot meal and talk honestly about life, which for many of these kids includes obstacles like hunger, poverty and unstable or abusive families.

Over the course of 2019, before the coronavirus changed the “come one, come all” Friday skate nights into numbers-controlled small group skate sessions, 400 kids came through JuJu’s doors.

The Rev. Miriam Mauritzen, Serious JuJu’s pastor, navigates hardship and stress with these kids and often their families as well, recognizing that a major part of her work is helping them figure out what to do with their pain.

“We take our broken skateboards and we put them on the cross,” she said, referring to the huge cross on the back wall constructed from snapped boards.

The Rev. Miriam Mauritzen stands in front of a cross made from broken skateboards.

“And we talk about how this is what we do with our brokenness. We don’t need to lock it away. Christ teaches that we put it here, that we share it in community. We embrace our pain until it becomes wisdom and a key for someone else.”

Serious JuJu holds together the experiences of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. What would it look like for your community to embrace pain until it becomes wisdom, hope and new life?

Dropping in

Mauritzen looks nothing like what one might expect of a skateboard pastor. She has no visible tattoos; her hair is a natural brown; on this particular Thursday, she’s wearing a Patagonia jacket and stylish duck boots. And JuJu looks nothing like a church.

Yet Serious JuJu is very much a place of worship, and Mauritzen is very much the shepherd. Midway through each session, the skaters pause to be fed — both literally and spiritually — with a talk led by either Mauritzen or one of JuJu’s dedicated volunteers.

On this night, over a spread of ribs, chicken soup and chocolate cake, Mauritzen is finishing up a gospel-centered discussion on failure when one of the teenage boys raises his hand.

Skate coach Kianna Chandler, 21, rolls down a half pipe. Chandler, who is finishing a bachelor’s degree, credits Serious JuJu with her success.

“Hey Miriam, have you ever ‘dropped in’?” he asks, using the term for standing at the top of a steeply curved half-pipe and shooting down into it on a skateboard.

She looks at him, taking a beat before she answers. This is not how she expected the kids to interpret her message.

No, she hasn’t ever dropped in. She’s not even a skateboarder herself. But she did just give a talk on embracing failure.

So she wraps up the group time, puts on all the pads she can find, summons every skater in the warehouse for moral and physical support, and climbs the steps to the top of the ramp.

When was the last time you accepted an invitation to take a risk? How do you react when an experiment goes awry?

She fails. The board shoots out from under her, and she goes down hard. She takes a break. Five minutes later, though, she tells the boys she wants to try again.

They’re instantly coaching her on how to do better, showing her techniques to help her keep her weight forward and avoid a second crash.

She perches atop the ramp again, nervous but determined, ready to do the thing she really does not want to do: pitch herself into the sudden drop, completely unsure of her ability to pull it off.

Serious JuJu has always been throwing itself forward into the void. For the past 14 years, this skateboarding ministry has kept changing to connect with skaters in this small, working-class city of about 25,000 tucked among the mountains of northwest Montana.

Downtown Kalispell, which is 33 miles from Glaciar National Park.

What has remained constant is the organization’s desire to love these kids with “strings unattached,” as Mauritzen puts it.

As longtime volunteer and former board member Tom Esch explains it, Serious JuJu is there “to come alongside people wherever they’re at. If they need food, great. If they need help with their apartment, we can do that.

“But mostly it’s to come alongside them, to let them know that they’re not alone, that they are loved and the God of the universe cares for them,” he said.

‘People are already congregating’

Mauritzen, an ordained Presbyterian minister, said her experience in this ministry has changed her ideas about successful outreach.

Hudson Crail, 11, rolls up the half pipe.

“Oftentimes, the church kind of misses the boat, because we’re doing that attraction model; we’re trying to make ourselves so attractive that people want to come and congregate with us,” she said.

“We don’t have to do that work. People are already congregating. We need to notice that and pay attention to that and go there and say what they’re congregating about is important, and we, as part of their community, want to stand with them and join them in that.”

Where are people already congregating in your community? How could your church join that gathering without attempting to control it?

Serious JuJu’s unconventional ministry has been recognized by the church; it is part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement, a testament to the expanding definition of church in the world.

“We want to grow the kingdom of God and our awareness of it and what it means to be a part of it, rather than our version of the Christian church,” said the Rev. Sara Hayden, who directs the movement’s apprenticeship and residency program.

That’s not to say that joining a community and turning it into a ministry is simple.

As Esch likes to say, the story of Serious JuJu is a narrative of “but for” moments, times when God’s hand has taken an all-but-certain death and turned it into the next step forward.

JuJu had an unlikely beginning. After the 2007 economic crash, welder J.D. Carabin got a side job making handrails for a high school renovation. His buddy commented that they would make great skate park accessories, which Carabin saw as a potential business.

How do you encourage, equip and empower laity to live into their vocations?

When he took them to the local skate park for feedback, though, he realized how badly the skaters “needed more than a rail,” as he put it.

He and his wife, Nicci, started inviting the kids to their garage on Friday nights for food, skating and Bible study. The home garage turned into a rented warehouse space with bunk rooms for kids who didn’t have a safe place to sleep.

The name dates from this period; Carabin used it for his business and kept it for the ministry primarily out of convenience. But later he realized it still fit, because he regarded Jesus as “serious juju.”

Kylee Jones and Rainleigh Vick, both age 13.

But the ministry was expensive, and Carabin wasn’t an experienced fundraiser. The couple ran a skate shop and a coffee shop to generate income; they also sold their house to keep JuJu going. Still, a few years in, they were behind on the rent and facing eviction.

If not for the relationship that the organization had developed with First Presbyterian Church of Kalispell, 2012 could have been JuJu’s end.

Mauritzen, then the church’s associate pastor, submitted a grant application to the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative, and the funding came through, allowing JuJu to pay off its debt and buy a converted bread truck to hold its gear.

JuJu “went mobile,” setting up ramps and a sound system in the parking lots of supporting churches for the Friday night skates.

In late 2014, the Carabins made the difficult decision to move on. Without them, JuJu began to founder, and discussions started about whether it was time to close the doors.

“Yeah, we’re not doing that,” Kianna Chandler remembers telling the board. She was 15 at the time. Her parents, both alcoholics, had divorced.

She’d lived with the Carabins for a few months when her mom moved out of state and her dad was in jail or treatment; she would later become an emancipated minor.

“Right around that time, there was nothing stable in my life,” she said. “I was like, ‘No, this is what the community needs. This is what I need. This is what the kids around here that like to skate need. We need some sort of stable structure in our lives.’ At that time, there was a lot of uncertainty in my life, and JuJu was the one solid thing.”

Chandler, Esch and the Rev. Glenn Burfeind, First Presbyterian’s senior pastor, kept JuJu running on a shoestring budget with volunteers.

They found a new warehouse and got indoor skates going again, but it was not a sustainable model for a year-round ministry that provided everything from spiritual encouragement to food boxes and social support. JuJu needed a leader.

Success has many definitions

Mauritzen already had a full-time job as associate pastor, although First Presbyterian was facing dwindling membership and financial support. The idea of splitting her time between the church and JuJu came up, but Mauritzen didn’t want to take the helm out of convenience.

Barry Williams performs a handstand.

“I need to spend time with these skaters,” Mauritzen recalls thinking. “I can’t just walk in and say, ‘I’m going to lead you guys.’”

She spent the summer hanging out at the skate park and with the Skate Team, the dedicated core of JuJu that spent extra time both on their boards and in Bible study.

“And after the summer, everything changed,” she said.

“It felt like they took ownership of me; they named me as one of their tribe and adopted me into that household of faith.”

Mauritzen joined JuJu as a half-time pastor, still also working half time for First Presbyterian. JuJu needed more of her, but the funding wasn’t there, and her future with the church also became more uncertain.

With the survival of the ministry in serious question, an unexpected legacy gift to the church, a house in Kalispell’s historic downtown, turned into the unlikely answer.

In 2019, First Presbyterian gave the house to Serious JuJu, which sold it to endow Miriam as JuJu’s full-time pastor.

How do you build relationships of mutual respect and understanding with your neighbors? Where would you have to go to do that?

There may never be a time when JuJu moves past the “but for” stage. They’re currently working through their latest major obstacle: the lease is up on the warehouse and the owners have plans to develop the space for other purposes.

So JuJu is headed to a former mall that has been repurposed as a community center and occupied by a variety of nonprofits, including the food bank and United Way. They have a grant from the New Worshiping Communities initiative to hire a one-year pastoral resident, though JuJu is a free-standing nonprofit.

Mauritzen is the only paid staff member. JuJu had to tap into its endowment to cover a $13,000 shortfall in the 2020 budget of $132,000, but the endowment was created to be that kind of safety net as the organization finds its footing. Mauritzen said that pledged gifts increased by 50% in 2020, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic.

The journey so far has helped everyone involved see that success has many definitions.

“We have cases where new communities last three or four years. We used to call that a fail — ‘That church plant failed’ — and now we’re starting to think of it in terms of, ‘Every organization has a life cycle,’” Hayden said, explaining the PCUSA’s evolving mindset.

“It might not look like we expected it to look, but it’s not a failure.”

Graffiti art decorates the indoor skate park.

Trying ‘this Jesus thing’

Chandler credits JuJu with her own success.

“I definitely don’t think I would be here today, working on my second degree and managing a crisis facility; I think there’s a fair chance that I probably would have gotten in some legal trouble,” she said. “I think after the first or second time I went to JuJu, I called my friend Courtney. I smoked pot at the time, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m not going to smoke anymore. I’m going to try this Jesus thing.’”

What does resurrection look like in your context?

The friend later ended up getting arrested on a drug charge. Chandler, by contrast, has an associate degree as a licensed addiction counselor. She’s about to graduate from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in social work and will begin an accelerated master of social work program in the fall.

Esch acknowledges that not every JuJu kid has a success story like Chandler’s.

But that’s not the ministry’s focus. “Living in the moment and saying, ‘Tonight was good’ is a measure of success,” he said. “Is this really ministry? Yeah, it really is. Just providing that sanctuary, a place to come, a place to get a meal, a place to share what’s stressing you out and go deep really fast, then jump back out and skate. It’s all part of it.”

Sunshine breaks through the clouds over the Swan Range as seen from west of Kalispell.

Back in the warehouse on that Thursday night, Mauritzen stands at the top of the ramp for the second time. She really wants to nail the drop-in.

She’s listened to the kids’ advice, practiced snapping her weight forward on level ground. She goes for it. And falls again. Not as hard but still a fall. To some, a fail.

But not here, not where showing up and trying again are recognized for the successes that they are.

The boys crowd around her, excited: “Miriam, that was SO GOOD!”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • Serious JuJu holds together the experiences of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. What would it look like for your community to embrace pain until it becomes wisdom, hope and new life?
  • When was the last time you accepted an invitation to take a risk? How do you react when an experiment goes awry?
  • Where are people already congregating in your community? How could your church join that gathering without attempting to control it?
  • Welder J.D. Carabin stumbled into ministry because he was paying attention to community needs. How do you encourage, equip and empower laity to live into their vocations?
  • Miriam Mauritzen spent time with the skaters, in their space, building a basis for her adoption into their “household of faith.” How do you build relationships of mutual respect and understanding with your neighbors? Where would you have to go to do that?
  • What does resurrection look like in your context?

The text came in at midday on a Thursday. It was a parent writing in ALL CAPS. Ordinarily, this would worry me. But this text was different.

It was a mother thanking me because our ministry had managed to string together a few paid jobs for her teenage daughter. Just before Christmas, her daughter had reached out, looking to make some Christmas money. With some work and the generosity of some of our customers, her Christmas wish had come true.

But it was her mother who felt the gift most acutely, and she wanted us to know. She saw more benefits from the experience than just the money her daughter had earned. She sensed her child’s confidence growing, and she saw signs that physical labor was improving her daughter’s health and mood.

This is not uncommon in the ministry we do. My church is home to several entrepreneurial ministries, including a teen landscaping company and a strength-training program.

During the pandemic, we have had to temporarily shut down both enterprises; we’ve lost employees, suspended shared meals and had to rebuild the whole weight facility outdoors — twice. But it’s been worth it.

Students often say that participating in the weights program and the landscaping work is the highlight of their week. For many, it’s the one chance in the week to feel normal. For others, it makes the difference between a depressive day and a decent one.

At every turn, we have discovered the accidental blessings of these two ministries. Because they involve physical activity and enable students to have distanced interaction outdoors with one another and with adults, they have been of immense benefit to everyone involved.

And through all of those dynamic signs of the kingdom, I have sensed a deeper theological truth that COVID-19 is teaching us: the physical matters.

Over the past year, we have certainly been reminded of our mortality. COVID has demonstrated the transience of life on this side of the kingdom of God. And sadly, it has also demonstrated the devaluation of life in our society.

But those reminders show not just that we are frail and mortal creatures in death; they show that we are embodied creatures in life.

Every day, people are confronted with the fact that we cannot greet or hug or grieve in physical ways that would ordinarily serve as a kind of spark or salve. So much communal connection usually happens through corporeal means.

For several centuries, Protestantism has been accused of being lost in ideas. Artists and mystics have rightly accused Protestants of practicing a kind of disembodied form of Christianity. Many times, we try to think our way to faith rather than feeling it or even enacting it.

The irony of this mental trap is that we serve the Christ whose entire entrepreneurial expedition into the world was filled with physical risk. It was tangible. And while the accusations about our cerebral tendencies made sense to me previously, it took a COVID Christmas and a student work project to make me see how much the corporeal matters — to God and to us. Even our liturgy — stiff though it can be at times — has a physicality. And without it, we can feel disconnected.

As we approach Lent, Good Friday and Easter, this point is being driven home again. God doesn’t intend to discard his creatures or their physicality. God intends to magnify that creaturely nature in the resurrection of the body.

Resurrected spiritual bodies are still bodies, after all!

And indeed, every bit of creation matters to God. If Scripture is to be believed, God intends to redeem every last particle. If the physical matters to God, it ought to matter to us.

I think part of what inspired the text I received from that ecstatic mother was the encounter with an intuitive theological truth that physical creatures need physicality. Christ does not redeem humanity through disembodied truth or celestial empathetic “feels” beamed from on high.

Rather, the God we serve was willing to be accommodated in the human bodies of a Jewish child and a Jewish teen mom. God does not just feel passionately toward humanity. Rather, God “passions” for humanity in the form of bodily suffering.

People keep talking about the need to realize that there will never be a “return to normal” in the church after COVID. I think that might be true.

Perhaps in this time of physical denial, we should design ministries that tap into this aspect of our shared story. My ministry accidentally (or providentially) mimics the labor of a Christ who both labored in this world and was labored into the world in the most human of ways.

What if we began to frame ministries that more intentionally engaged our physicality? Could such embodied ministries rekindle the connections that feel so distant during this time? Could more-physical ministries participate more fully in Christ’s redemption of the physical and foster greater community?

I know one mom who thinks they might.