Right from the get go week five was a struggle and a challenge. The first dinner prep immediately showed me that these students were not only completely unfamiliar with the absolute fundamentals of cooking, but they also were nowhere near ready for the leadership development challenges that we placed before them in a regular week. This group came from Clio, MI from a church that numerically is doing very well, but spiritually is week and has given into culture and society on too many fronts. These kids had never had much expected of them or much love or affirmation given to them. Part of the heartbreaking reality for this group was that they received a new youth pastor every year. There entire youth program is run by a one year vicar as part of that individuals seminary training. The vicar that was leading this trip fully recognizes the damage that this one year and then switch mentality was having on the students, but the senior pastor and the church still views it as helpful and productive. Thus these kids would just barely be getting to know their youth pastor when he would leave and be replaced by a new one with a different personality and different ministry style. As a result most of these kids only barely took their faith seriously. No one had ever required them to, or took them seriously long enough for them to take God talk seriously.
Very quickly it was apparent that this trip was not what these kids had signed up for or expected. It was a struggle to get them on board with every single element of our program. Asking for excellence from kids who have never had more than barely mediocre expected of them before is indeed a large task. In my first debrief with Andrew, on that Sunday night I was doubtful that we’d be able to get anywhere with the students. I had dropped my expectations for these kids just like everybody else had. I began to do exactly what got them stuck in that space in the first place. Andrew helped remind me that regardless of where these students were at we were still going to run our program, still going to challenge, and still going to expect excellence.
The first two days, both at the work site and at the church were pulling teeth to get these students engaged. They were looking for a fun time with other groups who they could chill and hang out with, not an intensely challenging and introspective time for them to examine themselves and there team. I had several conversations where I explicitly had to tell students that this week was not about them having fun. We’d hope that they could enjoy the work they were doing but the week was about growth and change, not about comfort and enjoyment.
And boy does God answer prayers. Of all the groups we’ve seen this summer this group had the most growth. The trip meant more to this group of students than to the students who were high performing strong leaders already. For these students I truly believe this trip was life changing. By the end of the week the students began to recognize why the challenge was important. They began to really celebrate the love of their teammates and bond closely as a team. They still are not very mature or spiritually strong, but now they are much more equipped to get there.
The last day of the trip, the students decided to share life stories as a way to get to know each other better and bond more closely. It was an intensely heartbreaking time listening to these kids stories of abuse and neglect, broken families and broken trust. These kids had seen the brokenness of the world in ways that were much too personal. Through those stories though God was changing lives. For some of these kids this was the first time they’d shared that story with anyone, the first time they’d ever had people who would listen to the whole thing without judging but simply listen and love. Some still weren’t able to tell their stories, the pain is still too strong and the distrust still too much to overcome, but the relationships have begun and I am confident that God who began this good work will complete it.
One girl in particular stands out. Right from the get go we knew that she would be one that was difficult to get to buy in, and sure enough she fought every decision and didn’t want anything to do with the program. She was very critical and cynical both of others and especially herself. She was both extremely open and honest about her struggles and had some very thick walls built up to keep people at arm’s length. God wouldn’t let her do that though and his spirit was powerfully at work in her. As the week progressed she began challenging those things she saw in herself that she disliked. It wasn’t a miraculous change but God’s spirit began to chip away at those walls reminding her again and again of her worth. It all came to a head with her on our last night as we rode the bus back from downtown. We got into a conversation and somehow it turned toward her struggles and fears and came to the place where she admitted to having contemplated suicide and believing that it would be easier to just be done. Praise God for RA training, because without that, at this point I probably would have freaked out, but God had prepared me for that situation and so I pressed in and we kept talking all the way back, with me just trying to affirm her and kindle the hope of Christ in her life. It was incredibly scary and incredibly emotional but God was in the whole process. Our group of leaders was able to conference and come up with a plan moving forward for her and just having people show they cared enough hear her out and ask her the hard questions gave her a huge boost. She left proclaiming in her typically overdramatic way that the week had been the best of her life and other even more dramatic things. Dramatics aside though, I fully believe that the Holy Spirit blessed her that week and the walls that had been so thick are now allowing some people access to the true her. The team that she came with is now a support system for her and that entire team came up with plans to change their whole youth group back at home.
The steps this “underperforming”, “less mature” team took at the end of the week were steps that no other team yet had chosen to take. These kids understood how they could change at home and how they could influence others. I realize now how much I had been selling these kids short, and even more how much I was selling God short. All I can do in response to God’s work is to echo Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”