Entering the Story of Bomb Threats and Drive Bys
Last week I found myself lying on the grass in the middle of a public park while my little dog Harry sniffed and “marked” every bush around us. With the warm sun beating down on me, I couldn't help but close my eyes and enjoy this peaceful setting that was enhanced by the slight breeze brushing over me. In what seemed like a perfect place, I reflected on the journey I’ve been on over the last few years.
I was a youth pastor my whole adult life before my wife and I decided to become public school teachers. I am still a youth pastor, but instead of them coming to my territory, I have the opportunity to enter theirs. It’s certainly a different context and demographic than I had grown accustomed to inhabiting. The schools we work in are in a low-income area and close to 75 percent of our students or their parents speak Spanish as their first language. It is incredible and inspiring to see how these students have adapted to a culture that is often foreign to them. They aren’t opposed to learning something new, but at times they need some help understanding the importance of such a discipline.
The high school where I have spent the majority of my time teaching and coaching has been under a blanket of tension this past year. At the beginning of the school year we had a bomb threat that forced all the students off the property and required a bomb squad (which I somehow ended up on!) to “clear” the school. A couple months later, there was an armed “intruder” that required all of the teachers to lock our doors, close the windows, and keep all of our students in our classrooms for three hours straight. Thankfully, the worst that came of both instances was one my students pacing around the classroom trying not to think about the fact that she really needed to go to the bathroom.
Hurting and healing
The local schools and neighboring city have been plagued with gang violence, racial tension, and systemic economic oppression. Each one these problems feed into the other and most are simply held at bay by police, prisons, and other authority structures. Students and citizens are in a constant state of anxiety and fear, while most have known nothing else for their whole lives. They are in bondage and they need to be freed.
The park Harry and I were lying in was right in the center of this city. Many may have thought I was nuts to be lying there. And to be honest, there were times that I allowed myself to feel some anxiety about my setting. But, it was perfect. All it took was a few moments of asking God to “help me see this place through your eyes.” It was beautiful, peaceful, and the presence of God was at hand. It was in lying at the heart of this city that I could picture the heart of God inviting his people towards deliverance into his community. Although it would be easy to run from a city that has such “symptoms,” God hasn’t. Rather than creating insulation around such issues, God has entered their story and offered healing.
Pain and hope are universal
As we examine the state of youth ministry, it’s important to hear the stories of the students that are a by-product of such a context. I would argue that both the pain and hopes of these students are common in most youth ministry contexts if we are willing to listen. See if any of these teens have something in common with the kids in your youth group:
- “Juan” came to class looking extremely distressed. I asked how he was doing and all he could muster was an “OK,” as his eyes remained directed at the floor. Over the next week he told me that there had been a drive by shooting in front of his apartment complex and he was first on the scene. He held the victim in his arms and watched him die. Now Juan is trying to process this horrific event, but it makes him nauseous to think about.
- Mark acknowledged his addiction to hard drugs and spent a few weeks in rehab. He came back to class, but lacked any motivation and slept constantly. I recently talked to his sobbing mom when he admitted that he’d relapsed.
- Yesenia’s attendance was terrible because she had to work in the fields with her father everyday in order to pay the family’s rent. Three months ago she found out her dad had cancer and he died a month later. She promised him she would graduate, so she is now highly motivated and only works in the fields when we don't have class.
- Jeremy has a learning disability and his parents recently died. He has somehow mustered the courage to stay in school and I just got to sign his diploma! He was accepted into an education/work program in Utah.
- Three teenage girls have recently gotten pregnant have chosen to carry their babies to term and continue to work with me on finishing their high school diplomas.
What’s our role in their reality?
As we develop an ethic of deliverance on behalf of our students, Glen Stassen and David Gushee offer some rich insight into what they term “Delivering Love” in their book Kingdom Ethics (InterVarsity Press). Anytime we take a hard look at the state of youth ministry, we can’t help but be made aware of each student’s need to be loved in the way of Jesus. I am paraphrasing their characteristics of delivering love: (For working model see: Parable of Good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-37)
1. Love enters the story of the hurting or oppressed
- How can we stand in solidarity with our students amid their suffering (in whatever form)?
2. Love does deeds of deliverance
- What tangible acts can we take to free our students from the bondage they find themselves in?
3. Love invites into community
- How do we embody the Church to our students as an invitation to experience the fullness of the Kingdom of God as offered in Jesus?
4. Love confronts those who exclude
- How do we advocate for our students by revealing and dealing with the individual and/or systemic evil that has oppressed them?
We need to enter their story
Our students are often filled with self-hatred and a hopelessness that keeps them from understanding that they were created in the perfect image of God. Whether they are products of a broken environment or they themselves feel as though they are hopeless and broken, we know that they are a beautiful creation. As youth workers, we have the opportunity to participate with God in bringing healing and restoration to our students. We are called to advocate for our students socially and advocate for their inner being. Jesus entered our story and advocated for each of us through his life, death, and resurrection.
Maybe as each of our students embrace their identity as image bearers of God, the schools/cities/families of our community will begin to transform from a fractured existence to the wholeness of the Kingdom of God.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.