We’re in the last week of the Youth Ministries gauntlet known affectionately as the three-peat. Every June, we do 3 consecutive week-long trips for our youth: first Middle School Mission Blitz, our in-town mission experience for rising 7th and 8th grade youth, then High School Mission Trip, this year to Albuquerque, New Mexico with two other churches from our conference, and then finally Youth Choir Tour, which is going through the deep south this year. Keep all of those on tour in your prayers, and especially our Associate Director Matt Britt, Youth Choir Director Erin Ypya, and graduated senior Melanie Linguist, who are all pulling the full three-peat and have been on the road (and sleeping on air mattresses) since June 11th!
The three-peat reveals a truth and crucial flaw of the practice of youth ministry: we are often moving so fast that we don’t take time to reflect on and process what it is we’re experiencing. And what we’re experiencing can be intense.
This past week, in Albuquerque, I had an experience that bears processing. I have been on at least two dozen mission trips in my life, and more than half of those as a staffer, and last week I stepped onto the most brutal worksite I had ever seen.
The home belonged to a single mother of three, a sweet woman who had inherited it from a family member. Since she had inherited it, she has lost several other family members, and, as one of the only ones with a home, she had accumulated all of those family members material possessions. Still processing some of the loss, she had struggled to get rid of any of it. The cumulative result was that the house was full to bursting with an amalgamation of unsorted items. She was a caregiver by nature who could not leave any person or animal she came across uncared for, so living in the house along with her and her children were 6 cats, 5 dogs, and an extraordinarily large catfish in a tank. The home was outside of the jurisdiction of the city, meaning that some of the support systems that we take for granted, such as those maintaining safe water, treating for mold, repairing roads, could not be counted on. The homeowner’s father had suffered from severe substance abuse problems that lead to domestic violence, which had left windows busted out with bloodstains on the frames. Additionally, in an attempt to try to improve the living situation of her children, the woman had ripped out the mold-covered bathroom of the house, only to realize she didn’t have the capacity to rebuild it.
When you first walked onto the site, the effect was overwhelming: the place was a lost cause. It was too dangerous, too messy, in too much disrepair. This woman and her children should just be moved out and the place should be bulldozed.
But that was not the task the work crew sent to the site was given. They were asked to rebuild the gutted bathroom. To any logical adult it seemed crazy — why even bother, why even fix it, why not just write this whole place off? This was clearly a band-aid on a broken leg, why invest the energy?
But we didn’t bring logical adults to the worksite.
By the time I joined the work crew on Wednesday, it was beginning to hum. The teenagers weren’t just repairing the bathroom, they were babysitting the woman’s toddler, had washed and trimmed some of the dogs, and cleaned the broken glass shards out of the window.
I was supposed to spend just a morning at the site but wound up being there for 2 full days. Four of the teenagers and I, (who wouldn’t all fit in the bathroom while they were repairing the floors anyway) cleaned and sanded and cut glass, and I got the privilege of watching those kids take down the boards on the windows and put in crystal clear new panes.
You should have seen how different the room looked. The homeowner came in and stood next to me and remarked how much more light there was in the room. How it was lighter than it had been in a long time.
That bathroom had to be rebuilt from the crawlspace up, and the difficulty of the task, plus the remote location of the site, poor ventilation, and other complicating factors, meant that come Thursday, as we were leaving, we were still seriously behind. They called in reinforcements, pulling the best contractors and construction workers from other teams, and threw every spare resource into getting the site done. The youth on the site worked late several days in a row, and when they got to Friday evening and realized that they still weren’t done, they skipped dinner, their shower slot, and their free time to keep working.
The adults on the site sent the youth back to the living center around 7:00 pm, and I wound up making a 9:00 pm run back out to the remote site (still unfinished) to bring food and caffeine. As I drove, I thought over what a mess it was, how as a mission trip organizer, this is never what you want, and how it was the worst worksite I had ever been to.
I got to the site, and the homeowner gave me a hug and we talked. I scooped up the baby and shared a snack with her while I waited on a set of keys from one of the adults in the back, and she told her friend sitting with her about her new windows. And I realized something.
This worksite was good.
This sweet woman and her sweet family got new windows and new light in the bedroom and their dog got a haircut and she got free childcare and now she would even have a safe bathroom with a tub that her toddler could play in. This woman who was raising 3 kids and 6 cats and 5 dogs and a catfish all on her own got a week where 8 teenagers told her over and over again with hugs and shared meals and labor and service that they loved her and that Jesus loved her. That she wasn’t forgotten. That she wasn’t a lost cause.
At evening worship at around 10:00 pm that night, every crew was asked to say where they saw God. Their testimonies were beautiful, and almost every crew named their client, the people who they had served, as glimpses of God, because of their hospitality, gratitude, and kindness.
When the team for the worst worksite stood up, they got the loudest round of cheers. And right on cue, Jason Moon, a youth dad from our church who had come with us, and who was one of the leaders of that worksite, jogs up the aisle, still splattered with drywall mud and sawdust and yells to the crew,
“It’s done! The site is done.”
The room exploded in another round of cheers and high fives. Everyone in the room was on their feet.
It was the worst worksite I had ever been to. It was difficult work, in a dangerous environment, with inadequate training and supplies, in remote location, without sufficient leadership. And it was still good. It was still powerful. The work of God, the work of taking that which is dark and bringing light to it, of taking that which is broken and repairing it, of taking that which is forgotten, and remembering it, was still done.
And it was because of teenagers that were not wise enough to recognize a lost cause. Because of teenagers who have the audacity to believe that they’re hearts and hands would be enough.
I am grateful to be in ministry with teenagers every day, but never more than days like that one. Keep our teenagers in your prayers as they travel and sing, and over the rest of the summer, through VBS and Camp Barnabas, they continue to be God’s people in our world.
Director of Youth Ministries