Church’s ministry makes 'safe zone' for young people

By Forrest White

Published: July 2, 2018

A conversation with the Rev. Timothy Kirven begins with his enthusiasm level on high and rises up from there, as he talks passionately about the new Safe Zone ministry at Worship and Praise Church on Richmond’s East End.

But, then suddenly, the enthusiasm is gone, as he considers the recent past.

“I’ve probably done over 100 funerals for young people under the age of 25 over the last four to five years,” Kirven said.

Amid the cries of those mourning such unthinkable loss, he heard a call, from parents and youth, desperate for a safe haven.

Worship and Praise Church is a United Methodist church. So, in the fall of 2017, Kirven took Bishop Sharma D. Lewis through the basement of the church’s building on East Laburnum Avenue, sharing a vision for a gathering place for young people ages 10-18.

When it was still a mess, Bishop Sharma D. Lewis said, “I can see this being a safe zone for kids.’” Kirven said. “I was like, ‘Bam! That’s the name right there.’”

On Easter Sunday 2018, the Safe Zone officially opened, but only as a preview of what to expect on Friday nights.

Since then, on any given Friday, you’ll find the basement space abuzz, with young people shooting pool and playing ping pong while others play Xbox or PlayStation on one of seven TVs, as the sound of Christian music pulses through the basement.

You’ll hear lots of chatter and lots of laughter, the sounds of young people happy, the sounds of young people safe.

And there’s only one way to get inside.

“Nobody can get into the Safe Zone without a Bible in their hand,” Kirven said. “That’s your ticket.”

What is the Safe Zone?

Safe Zone begins with 30 minutes of praise and worship led by the youth of Worship and Praise Church starting at 7 p.m., followed by a message rooted in Scripture. The fellowship time begins around 8 p.m. and goes until almost 11 p.m.

“We are steadily planting seeds and we’re watering them,” Kirven said. “We talk about things like not being a bully, about striving to be your best. The next Friday comes and we plant and water again. We’re hoping and praying the seeds are going to produce fruit.”

In its first two months, an average of about 40 young people showed up each week for the Safe Zone. Chaperones include students from Virginia Union University’s campus ministry.

“Man, I’m telling you,” Kirven said, his enthusiasm level climbing again. “I’m not trying to brag, but this is the best thing since sliced bread. Starting on Saturday morning, they’re talking about the next Friday. We see consistency. Once they get there, they’re coming back. Very few miss. The Safe Zone is cool. It’s awesome. Those are the kind of words you get from the young people.”

So far, Safe Zone relies on word of mouth to draw its crowds. With a capacity of around 60 students – and the church sanctuary targeted as overflow space – Kirven anticipates needing a larger facility soon.

Such a thought brings him great joy.

But he knows that, although it happens inside the church, Safe Zone is about preparing young people for what they’ll face outside those basement walls.

“We are not just a church (building) on the corner,” said Kirven, a lifelong resident of Richmond and the founding pastor. “I have a love for the community. I do as much as I possibly can for the community. I don’t stay in the four walls of the church. I always want to see the community do better. I’ve always had a passion for kids. When I started in ministry I had more youth than adults.”

He pauses to say that his heart grieves for young people lost, for those making bad choices.

“But when I see these kids smiling and parents being drawn in to the Safe Zone, that’s the community being empowered,” Kirven said. “The Word says a child can lead the way.”

Other churches have taken note and reached out to him about starting their own Safe Zone ministry, he said.

Worship and Praise Church has big summer plans for its young people, starting on the first Monday they’re out of school through August.

There will be lots of field trips and additional open days for the Safe Zone.

“The Safe Zone is my way of saying that I’ve seen all this bad happen and if we can save one child by planting and watering those seeds, so that a young boy or girl can grow up and have a desire to be something better, I think we’ve done our job,” Kirven said.

If you would like to find out about ways to support the Safe Zone ministry, contact Kirven by calling 804-648-8031 or email

-Forrest White is a news associate with the Virginia Advocate magazine.


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