I knew that Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about Youngstown. But I never listened to it until my 45-minute drive to the city this morning. It’s a sad song. Even the instrumentation and melodic structure conjure up images of the Appalachian foothills, soaring smokestacks, and post-industrial blight. Maybe not the kind of place that naturally comes to mind as the destination for a team of idealistic, young, prospective church-planters. But I actually have reason to believe otherwise.
I’ve actually been to Youngstown several times in 2020. And I’ve sincerely enjoyed it each time. This trip, however, we had a whole team to continue the process that we started in Cleveland earlier in the month. I got to spend the morning walking around campus with my friend Daniel. He grew up in the Youngstown area, so it was especially interesting to get his thoughts on the possibility of an H2O church plant at Youngstown State University.
In addition to Daniel’s thoughts, we got to talk to a lot of staff and students on campus. Maybe Daniel speaks extra-fluent “Youngstownese.” Maybe the beautiful weather leant itself to long, lingering conversations. In any event, we enjoyed meaningful connection with almost every person that we approached for conversation. Most of the people we met expressed zero spiritually engagement, but they were more than willing to talk with us. We got to see the way that people thought about Youngstown and talked about Youngstown. We got to establish some key contacts. And we even got to visit some of the on-campus spaces that could serve as meeting locations for an on-campus church.
One of the most exciting things about YSU is that it’s a deeply beloved institution in the Youngstown area. Locals get way more excited about Youngstown State sports than Kent State sports. They rave about the Dana School of Music. Couples come onto campus to get married. The campus enjoys a close proximity to downtown Youngstown. And the University genuinely feels like a campus on the cusp of big things. People in our region have seen the way that post-industrial Cleveland and Pittsburgh have reimagined themselves for the 21st Century. The H2O team who moved to Kent to start our church have watched Kent State University transition from a suitcase campus to a thriving residential environment. And Youngstown just feels poised to do the same thing.
That being said, we don’t really know if Youngstown will be the best fit for the team developing out of H2O Kent. Some of the most exciting elements of a potential church plant at YSU are highly speculative. The fact of the matter is that a significant number of Youngstown State students are commuters. The area economy has been in decline. And we’re still dealing with a global pandemic (though honestly, Mahoning County seems to be doing better than most in Ohio!).
Our team talked at the end of our day in Youngstown. A number of people admitted to hearts fully prepared to hate Youngstown. It feels awfully close to Kent. The name of the city doesn’t scream “sexy” for most people. Still, almost everyone indicated a degree of being pleasantly surprised by their time in Youngstown. We really did have a lovely day. And I will continue to pray in the hopes that there might be more days in Youngstown yet to come.