It doesn’t require a surplus of insight to realize that the world is full of oppression. It doesn’t take much effort to see that immeasurable suffering surrounds us, and realize that something is terribly wrong. Not long ago, I was an angst-filled teenager, convinced that I was the first person to ever experience an existential crisis. I remember feeling that I was drowning in a sea of injustice; that there was nothing I could do to right all the wrong that dominates this life. “I’m so small, what’s the point?” I would fantasize about running away to the wilderness of Canada and living as some sort of bearded, axe-wielding mountain man who wore flannels all the time. Out there in the wild, I could pretend that suffering didn’t exist. I wouldn’t have to worry about the fact that I couldn’t fix it.
Now, I’m an angst-filled twenty-something, fully aware of the commonality of existential crises. I’d like to think that I’m more of an optimist these days, albeit a cautious one. I’ll admit that flannels make up too much of my wardrobe, but I no longer have any interest in coping with the evils of the world by escaping them. I feel like I’ve found a more hopeful solution.
I’m not a youth pastor, nor do I plan on being one, and the idea of writing a blog for youth pastors is intimidating to say the least. I’m not studying management or leadership or ministry. I want to grow up to be a journalist or non-profit worker of some kind, so rather than pretend that I know how to lead high-schoolers, I’m going to stick to what I know: stories. Please refrain from breaking out your notepads. This isn’t a post that will lay out the 5 steps to convincing your students they can make a difference. Rather, I’d like to think that in this story of how a younger, more-bitter version of myself found a reason to hope for achievable change.
A couple years ago I spent a semester in South Africa on what was advertised as a service-focused study abroad opportunity. When I got there, I discovered that only three weeks of the semester would be spent on a community engagement/service-learning course. While the lessons learned in this course were invaluable exposure to the idea of helping the marginalized in a sustainable manner, I spent a lot of my time finding choice words to mentally rebuke the overseers of the program for false advertising. Three weeks was clearly not enough time to make any sort of difference in anybody’s life.
Fast-forward to the end of our time at service sites. My team of six students was in the midst of putting on a three-day VBS for kids in the community. We had games and crafts and Bible lessons galore. In the car on the way to VBS we found ourselves discussing whether or not we felt this had been a “life-changing” experience for us or for the kids with whom we were working…the consensus was a resounding “no.”
Later that day I stood watching a mass of kids swarming playground equipment like bees in a hive. Off to the side I saw a boy with cerebral palsy quietly observing from afar. I introduced myself in broken Zulu. His name was Sne. After I had exhausted my Zulu vocabulary, I picked Sne up and carried him to the top of the slide. The way he laughed and smiled as he went down the slide on my lap was perhaps the most genuine joy I have ever sensed in another person. Afterwards, I pushed him on a swing made out of a recycled tire. He squealed with childish ecstasy as I tried desperately not to become “that dumb American who pushed too hard and threw Sne off the swing.” He told me he had never been on a swing before and I promised him we’d play on the playground again tomorrow.
The next day Sne didn’t show up. It was the last day of VBS. I got in an impromptu Tyler-vs.-the-world water fight. We put on a puppet show. I should have been happy. But I couldn’t stop wondering why Sne wasn’t there. The next day I found out that he had a doctor’s appointment but that he had come looking for me later. When he found out he was too late and that I wasn’t coming back, he cried. The leader to whom he was talking gave him an apple. It didn’t help.
I tried to tell this story to the other 50 kids in my program that semester during our group presentation; I cried like a baby. I don’t stay in touch with Sne as much as I’d like. Occasionally, I send a facebook message to a leader at the service site who relays messages for us. I hear that Sne is doing well. He’s enjoying school and as he gets older, his classmates begin to understand that he’s not that different from them.
I guess the moral of the story is this: I thought I couldn’t make a difference and I was right. It was only when I got over myself, when I stopped caring about what I could do and started doing the little things that God was able to bring joy to a little boy who doesn’t have many chances to just be a kid and have fun. Maybe your high schoolers are like me. Maybe they feel overwhelmed by the evil in the world and discouraged that they can’t make a difference. Maybe they love to read sad books and listen to sad music and stress themselves out about the apparent lack of goodness in the universe. Maybe they’re convinced that they’re too small, too young, and lack the confidence to change the world. I suppose the beautiful thing is that they don’t have to change the world. All God asks us to do is seek ways to bring the love and justice of His Kingdom to Earth; He takes care of the rest.
Somebody once told me that if I was ever unsure of what God wanted me to do next, all I had to do was find a way to help the marginalized. If you’re looking for God where you’re comfortable- if you’re looking for Him among the powerful and the wealthy- chances are you won’t find him. When we allow ourselves to stop feeling important and start taking care of the little things, when we finally begin to say, “I can’t,” we start to realize how beautiful it is that God can.
If you’re looking for tangible ways to help your students get involved, or you’re looking to help them start thinking about the little ways they can orient their lives around others, I’d highly encourage you to look into doing our 30 Days of Heartwork program, or even think about adopting a Heartwork project. This is, after all, the Heartwork blog, and I’m allowed to make shameless plugs. These programs are great ways to introduce your students to the idea of social justice that is Biblically-inspired, and to build in them a passion for the marginalized and oppressed. Maybe you’ll find that the answer to, “Who am I and why am I here?” isn’t as complicated as people would like you to believe.