by Osheta Moore
My first job was at a buffet-style pizza chain called Ci Ci’s Pizza. My boss was a young twenty-something with perfectly gelled blonde hair and the word “Manager” affixed to his spotless tomato-red polo. My co-workers were a diverse and scrappy group. There was Carlos, who only spoke Spanish, but made sure we all took our meal breaks by pointing at us and then the buffet. “You must eat!” he’d say in his beautifully accented English. There was Bailey, the cheerleader at a rival high school who was earning money for her first car and an upcoming trip to nationals in Florida. I remember Jamal, the community college student who shared an apartment with five guys – all trying to pay tuition, all completely enamored with the new PlayStation, and all holding down similar part-time gigs. And then there was me: oldest of four, paying my way through dance classes, and helping contribute to our family’s struggling budget.
Together this rag-tag group of pizza slingers cleaned vomit after a kid’s birthday party, rushed to fill a 50-pizza order for a starving youth group’s fundraiser, and between 5pm and 7pm every day, we held our ground and conquered the dinner time rush like characters in a Tolkien novel because frazzled families or famished football players treat a pizza buffet like their nutritional promised land.
There is nothing quite as character-building as your first job.
A job gives you a sense of your place in the world, for good or bad. When you have a job, you know you can contribute to society. When you have a job, you learn to navigate relationships with different types of people and how you handle conflict. When you have a job, you begin to own your life because that’s when most of us start paying for it. When you have job, you can breathe a bit easier and be bit more generous. A job is a what St. Francis of Assisi might call “an instrument of peace.”
Which is why the Plaza movie theater right next to Woodland Hills (that we’ve owned since acquiring our church building in 2001) is a unique ministry for us. As a community of peacemakers, we have a fun, accessible, meaningful way that we can seek and help create peace for our neighbors. The leadership of Woodland knew that The Plaza has been a fixture here in Maplewood since 1967; it was important to respect its history and do everything we could to revitalize it so that it could continue to serve our community well. And so much of this thoughtfulness has paid off. For instance, Mike Dougherty, the theater manager, remembers coming here when he was younger, so he infuses his passion for the Plaza in everything he does from scheduling movies to caring for the building.
In addition to its history, the Plaza is special because it offers affordable entertainment to people in our community. With ticket prices often over $10 at other theaters, the Plaza offers popular second-run movies for just $3. Family movie night is a bedrock for so many to bond and share experiences. By keeping ticket prices low, Woodland is helping facilitate connections for families.
But what makes the Woodland Hills/Plaza relationship so special is that we get to partner with God to help transform young peoples’ lives by giving them a safe, friendly, and empowering environment for their first job.
Since 2013, Woodland has partnered with The Lift to staff the theater because we know the life-shaping potential that a first job can have. Studies have shown that kids who come from families where they are taught a healthy work ethic do well when they enter the workforce, but what about young people for whom there is no one to help them navigate employment? This is the beauty of The Lift’s programs.
Sandra Unger, Executive Director and Pastor, began The Lift because she saw the need for a community that would invest in at-risk youth so that they could become self-sustaining, productive, caring adults. The Lift builds trust and teaches kids and young adults that they have the power to tell their own stories: they can rise out of whatever place they find themselves, they can change the narratives in their heads that often prevent success, and they can be a part of a larger story of change in their community. What a beautiful picture of Christ-like love!
There are four programs that The Lift offers to support young people. Two programs focus on problem-solving skills as well as social and emotional intelligence: Power Up for elementary students and Level Up for high school students. Then young people in the program can participate in Show Up at the Plaza: the on the job, practical, hands-on application of what they’ve learned at The Lift so far. The last program, Change Up, is where young adults can re-invest: currently one of their staff members used to be a kid in their program.
What we’ve built at the Plaza is so unique and so impactful because you know what it says to our community? It says we are Jesus followers who show up and listen. We think creatively and we’re always looking for ways to restore dignity to all people. Because we believe that every person is immeasurably loved by God, we will help support young people looking for good jobs. But that’s not all – development and growth is a main part of the story too. In talking to Mike and Sandra and other Plaza volunteers, it’s clear they’ve seen the transforming work the Spirit is doing in these precious lives.
As a mother, when I think about where I want to spend my entertainment dollars this summer I want to go to places like the Plaza. I want to introduce my teenage son (who is thinking about finding his first job in a couple of years) to the young people in the program as he’s buying a movie ticket or ordering his favorite candy. I want him to have an imagination for what his first job experience can look like and most of all, I want him to see that the local church cares about meeting the felt needs of our community: both young people who need support and families looking for a fun way to connect together that’s not going to break the bank. I want him to have a vision for his first job: one that shapes his work ethic, yes, but my prayer is that as we patronize the Plaza and he sees the good work Woodland is doing in partnership with The Lift, that God will use it to spark my son’s imagination and help him realize that when he works he can work for the glory of God, he can do good with his paycheck, and when possible, he should re-invest in others for the sake of the Kingdom.