Thursday, May 5, 2011

Building Bridges

Treat people as if they were what they ought to be,
and you help them to become what they are capable
of being.

--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

photo of Sunset Old Bridge Picture

We had an 'issue' at youth group last night.  I am the director of a youth program.  I just started there last month so I'm just getting to know these kiddos and I like them very much.  It's been a few years since I've worked with this age group.  I had forgotten how 'right out there' middle school kids are.  Boy, something pops into their head and it's out of their mouth.  It's kind of refreshing after working with adults (I still do that too) who measure and weigh everything before they speak.  I had a friend tell me that she had tried to work with the youth group, but she just couldn't do it because they were just too mean.  She said she had to leave the room several times in tears.  I don't think they're intentionally mean, I just don't think they've learned to filter anything yet.  Isn't that what maturation is all about?

As the new director, I was being tested last night.  All of the kids were pushing me to see just how far they could go before I drew the line.  The first few nights there, I had jokingly held control of the group, but last night a few boys decided to push the limit and it was time to draw the line.  They needed to know that I, as the adult leader, would be in charge.  Kids, even middle school age kids, need to know where the lines are.  Once they know this, then everyone can settle in and feel safe together.  I gave the ring-leader of the group a choice:  he could be courteous and respectful of me and the others who were speaking or he could go to the back of the room by himself.  He chose C, neither of the above.  (Don't you just love the kids who always choose that one?  Really, I do.  They keep you on your toes).  I offered him the two choices again and added this time that if he didn't choose, I would choose for him.  Again, he chose C, so my choice for him was to go to the back of the room where he could talk all he wanted to, to himself, and not bother the rest of us.

He thought I was joking and then, immediately, he was sorry.  I assured him that when he showed me that he could be respectful, I would allow him to rejoin us and I urged him to move.  Immediately, another young man, whom I hadn't seen before, said that he liked the old director better than me.  I thanked him for his opinion and asked him if he had anything else he wanted to share.  When he was put in the spotlight, he refused any further opinions.  While this new young man and I were having our very short conversation at the front of the room, my first little friend was having words with another of the leaders in the back of the room.  He became belligerent and refused to comply.  I was not aware that this was happening in the back because I had started the evening's lesson.  The kids were quiet and attentive and we were reviewing last week's lesson when I heard the leader in the back of the room say, "If that's the way you feel, then you shouldn't be here.  Maybe you need to go home."  The young man looked dumbstruck.  Of course, his answer was, "OK.  Maybe I will."  And he got up and left.  Three other boys followed him out.  As they walked out, the leader told them that if that was their choice, they would not be allowed to come to the end of the year Beach Party next week.  And still they walked out.  Another of the leaders followed the boys outside and then called their parents so they knew that the boys had left our care.

This was not how I had planned for the evening to go.  I had intended to present the kids with a lesson on Belonging and Love.  ( laid plans???)  All night long I dreamt about those boys walking out--the boys who really need the youth group.  I prayed first thing this morning, that God would take what happened and turn it around for those young people.  The next several minutes, after their departure, the group said a prayer, each young person voicing their needs and thoughts.  I was impressed with the maturity of the kids that stayed.  They prayed for those boys and they prayed for the group as a whole.  The rest of the evening went very well with the group choosing a mission statement for themselves:
  Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.  I Timothy 4:12   Impressive, huh?

I am saddened by the happenings of last night.  Of all the young people there, those boys need that group more than any of the rest.  Their home lives are not rich in love and acceptance and I'm afraid that without a group like ours, they will join another, less advantageous group.  I pray that God will turn this around for these kids and that the maturity and grace that I observed in the other kids will help them to reach out and bring them all back.

But we went wrong when we backed him into a corner.  The only way out for him was to leave.  To maintain his sense of dignity and respect by the other kids, he had to leave and hope that someone, anyone, would follow him.  My intention, when I sent him back, was to get the group started and then to go back and talk to him, privately, myself.  He didn't allow us to get that far, for all of this took place in about five minutes.  (I forgot the reaction time of middle school kids.  I should have had a leader take over immediately for me at the front of the group and gone with him to the back.  Maybe we could have diffused all of this).

You see, we were both right.  He needed to understand and demonstrate respect for me and for the others in the group, leaders and kids.  I needed to respect his position in the group of his peers, especially the boys sitting there.  This young man is a leader, no doubt.  He is charismatic, he is dynamic, and he is full of life.  We need to find a way to channel that energy and produce a positive outcome for him and the group.  We're going to just keep praying that the Lord will work his miracles and bring those boys back to us (with an apology to everyone for their behavior, I hope).  We need his leadership and courage, for it took great courage for him to walk out of there in front of so many of his friends.  I privately had to applaud the young men who stood with him, their friend.  One of them in particular, knew he would be in trouble with his parents and made the choice anyway.

Please don't misunderstand, I'm not saying what they did was all right, but it wasn't all wrong either.  They're young and they need to understand respect and cooperation.  This is a group and we must find a way to work together as a youth family.  As such, we will have disagreements and falling-outs.  Last night was one of those.  Now we must find a way to reconcile our differences and build a bridge to the future together.  This is why I love what I do. 

When I was very little, my dad was in construction.  He built bridges.  I think I must have inherited that gene.  With God's help, I'll find a way to build a bridge here.  I hope those boys will all be on the other side, but even if they are not, I will be sure that they know that I love them no matter what and so does God.

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