Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Loving an 8th Grader

I spent part of last week recruiting at a youth conference in Texas. I set up a table and offered several quite impressive giveaways in exchange for filling out an info card. Hey, what’s signing your life away if you win a sweatshirt blanket or a t-shirt? The conference’s main sessions took place in a drafty, cement-floored room filled with rows of brown metal folding chairs. After one morning’s session ended, I stayed behind while the several hundred 7th through 12th graders, their youth ministers, and their adult volunteers emptied the room.

As I sat in the empty room and reflected upon the morning, in my mind I could see a young, curly-haired girl in a sweatshirt and jeans. She would’ve been sitting at the front of this conference—it was her favorite thing to race for the good seats. Sitting in between her current BFFs, she always wanted to be in the middle, ever-fearful of having to sit on the end, left out of the conversation.
She’s me, of course. Fifteen years later, my hair is straight (and higher!) and my seat in the room has changed. What hasn’t changed is the presence of the youth ministers and volunteers. They attended every conference, retreat and lock-in of my youth, and are still at it. At the end of each session they faithfully line the front of the auditorium, Bibles in hand, ready to pray and counsel with whoever has a need.
I won’t pretend that I was not a dramatic junior high girl. There was always something earth-shattering happening in my life that caused me either unspeakable pain or supreme joy. When I had an issue (which was often), I went to one of my youth moms. I’m so thankful that my youth minister had the good sense to place women in front of us week by week that we (the dramatic girls) could talk to about our issues. They never laughed, they never belittled our problems. They listened, hugged us, and prayed over us.
As our chaperones on youth trips, they also played their fair share of truth-or-dare (photography forbidden, of course), dealt with unruly (and unsleepy) bed partners in hotel rooms, and medicated those who got car sick on the church bus or van. Only heaven knows how much sleep they lost on our (my) behalf. I hope that there is a special nap room in heaven for youth sponsors.
But at the end of the day, they were the ones who ministered to me every bit as much as the youth minister. They were the ones who could take one look and know if the 8th grade had been rough on me that day. They were in turns both tender and tough. They put up with my drama and called me on it.
When I look at junior high girls today and remember my own awkward journey through those years, I wonder how anyone put up with me! But every 8th grade girl needs a hundred hugs a day and to feel like she is important to someone she looks up to.
Typically, 70% of students drop out of church after high school. Research shows that if a teenager has multiple adults in the church who invest in her life, she is far more likely to stay in church after she graduates high school. I am an example of this. I am no longer close to many of the friends I would’ve called BFF in junior high, but several of those youth moms are still an important part of my life. Had it not been for their care, I don’t know that I would have stayed involved in the youth group. I would absolutely not be who I am today if not for their unconditional love for me during some very important, formative years of my life.
As an adult my responsibility is to pass along the love with which they gifted me. I call their love a gift because I did not deserve it and because there is no way I could ever repay them. But if I know those women, they would say to pay it forward, instead. I am passionate about encouraging women and girls younger than me because it is a calling God has placed on my life, but also because it is doing for others what was done for me.  
If you are a youth parent/volunteer/chaperone/sponsor, I say this to you: please, please persevere. You don’t know the impact you are having on the lives of the students with whom you spend time. Even if all you’re doing is administering Dramamine on long trips, please keep doing it. You have no idea how badly these students need you. You WILL reap a harvest someday-- the fruit of which will be lives changed for the better, and spiritual children in your own life who do for others because of what you did for them.

A little later, as the worship band played the invitation song, a junior high girl and a youth mom walked past me to the back corner of the room. They talked, the mom prayed, and they returned to their seats hand-in-hand, wiping away tears. My own eyes filled with tears and my heart was filled with gratitude for the parent volunteers in this room and for the ones whose love changed my life. I hope they think that the time they sacrificed was worth it. I know I do.


1 comment:

  1. This made me smile . . . made me remember the youth mom who loved me unconditionally . . . made me hope that some of my moments as a youth mom have mattered . . . made me know I'm not done loving on young women in the name of Jesus!