I must preface this post with a plea for earnest prayer. I am in the trenches fighting a battle I’ve never faced before. So far in my life, the battles I’ve fought have been mostly in my own life: Physical, emotional and spiritual battles in which I conquered my own monsters and demons. This is the first time in my life that I recall fighting on behalf of so many others. You’ll see, after reading, exactly what I mean.
I’ve been attending the church at which David is the associate pastor since the fall. It is a church that has an urban bus ministry, bussing in children and teens from the surrounding communities. I remember the first time I stood outside of the youth girls’ Sunday school class and heard what was going on inside. The teacher, though doing her best and with the best of intentions, had lost control of these girls. They talked over her, laughed, whispered, played on their phones, slept…They had no respect for her whatsoever. Every adult who I saw address the girls came at them in frustration and subdued anger, fussing and correcting.
My friends would tell you that I am the first to correct and discipline a child when they are doing something wrong. If you ever leave your child in my care, they will behave. Rachel threatens her children with “Amber boot camp.” So it must have been God’s divine Word spoken to my heart that day, because when I saw all of this going on, I felt nothing but sadness and compassion for these misbehaving teenage girls.
I looked at them and saw how WE as Christian adult leaders were failing them.
The materials being taught, while Biblically sound, were completely irrelevant to them. They cared nothing about the stories in the Bible…and why should they? The lessons were geared toward the Christian teen living in suburban America with a semi-stable home-life and trivial teenage issues. The girls in this class...they need something different. Many of them know little to nothing about God, Jesus and the Bible. They live in a single parent home, or with an aunt or grandmother. Or in a foster home. They deal with very grown up issues. They struggle with anger, depression. They are expected to look after younger siblings. Fend for themselves. Several have parents who are in prison or were shot to death. They have hearts full of hatred. They live in the projects, go to mediocre schools and aspire to nothing.
They’ve been told that they are worthless, ugly and will amount to nothing. And they believed the mouths that spoke those words to them.
That day standing outside of their classroom, God spoke to me and told me to “go and make disciples” of them. I immediately pleaded my case to David, expressing my concern that we were approaching these girls in all the wrong ways and told him that I would do absolutely anything I could to change that. So I inserted myself into the class in the next weeks and began helping each Sunday. I began to teach every other week or so, choosing topics that I thought they might enjoy. Instead of a monologue Bible story, we began having real conversations about real issues. I started to get to know them personally. I began to see a shift in their behavior. Though still problematic at times, it began to improve.
A huge theme, something I realized quickly was a topic that came up EVERY week, was respect. For some reason (whether it be cultural or otherwise) these girls have been conditioned to believe that they deserve endless amounts of respect no matter how they behave. So, one of the biggest issues at church (they told me) is that they feel disrespected. And they don’t feel as though they need to give respect if they aren’t getting it. We have had countless conversations about respect since I came to that realization. I’ve made it clear that adults (especially teachers and leaders in the church) deserve respect no matter what . I explained that respect is something that is earned and that the teachers who spend years going to school and hours preparing lessons definitely have earned that respect. We talked about how God tells us to respect and obey those in leadership. We even had a whole lesson about respect for GOD and for the church building itself.
Most of them stared into space, eyes glazed over, during these discussions. Several actively and passionately participated in a back and forth argument about why or why not people should be respected. A few listened attentively and maybe actually implemented some change in their lives. Probably not though.
I came away from those repeated conversations exhausted and frustrated at the walls of misconception and lies that I had to break through. And I realized that I must first earn their trust and respect to a certain degree if I was ever going to get through to them.
So I’ve spent months of Sundays chiseling away at these walls. Thick, thick walls. I’ve seen some amazing things. I’ve heard some of their heartbreaking stories. So many of them just need someone to talk to. They’ve shared with the class their stories of abuse and loss, and when I didn’t have the words to respond, I’ve seen them step up to encourage one another.
The weight of my burden for them is so heavy. I leave church every week distressed, my mind racing with ideas of what I can do to help these young women. I have felt great anger about their situations. Anger toward the Church for overlooking them and not seeing that they need help. Anger toward their parents for being generally uninterested in raising them. Anger toward the girls for not wanting to listen to what I have to say. I’d say this is an anger from God, a righteous anger if you will, spurring me on toward stepping up and making changes.
But several weeks ago when I walked through the doors of the church, I felt a different kind of weight. Less of an anger and more of a weight of profound sadness. I looked around at the girls (and guys really) playing on their phones during service, talking during worship, refusing to stand with everyone else, chattering and snickering during the sermon, distracting during the invitation, raising their hands just to be stupid…
It hurts so deeply. I look at them and see how LOST they are. I wonder if I’m making a difference at all, week after week as we hash out these issues.
We have talked about respect, forgiveness, making goals, and have been over and over the basics of the gospel. Unfortunately, they have been fed the incomplete picture so many times by different well-meaning people throughout their lives, but all it has done is left them confused and with the false belief that if they come to church and say they believe in Jesus that they will go to heaven.
This is a huge problem in every evangelical church. We want so badly for children to ” get saved” that we coerce them into “making a decision” when they aren’t even sure what it is that they are deciding. The truth is that if someone has really made the decision to be a follower of Christ, there will begin to be fruit in their life. We spend so much time getting them to say a prayer and never explain that this is a life decision. A commitment.
This past Sunday I woke up with the same dread in my stomach that I have had for months. I had spent the week going back and forth about what my topic was going to be and never settled on one. But I never feel prepared. I always feel like I’m wasting my effort. I forced myself out of bed, got ready and went to church. I sat in David’s office prior to service, staring at my blank notebook page, willing a lesson to appear before my eyes. No such luck.
It occurred to me during the week that I really was wasting my effort trying to disciple these girls if they are not even truly Christians in the first place. So I decided to make a survey of some simple questions to find out where they are at.
Simple questions like Who is God? Who is Jesus? How do you get into heaven? What is sin? Just for fun, I threw in the question : What is the biggest question you have about God or the Bible?
Some of the answers astounded me. Some answers proved that they have been listening; others…not at all. They had questions about who made the Bible, creation vs. evolution, how to know that the Bible is truth, why God lets bad things happen and if He has our lives planned, can we change it?
I watched them quietly working on these surveys, putting actual effort and thought into them, and my heart was encouraged.
Then something happened that I never saw coming.
Bear with me because this story requires a back story:
Flash back to a few months ago. I had experienced a rather trying morning with the girls and we were in the middle of yet another heated discussion about respect. One girl in particular was leading the conversation. Here is the dialogue as close as I can recall:
Me: Why do you think I’m here? Why do I come here every Sunday and teach you?
Girl: Cuz’ you got to.
Me: No ma’am. I absolutely 100% DO NOT have to. I want to. Because I care about you.
Girl: You don’t care about us. You don’t even know me.
Me: I’m trying to know you. That’s why we have these conversations.
Girl: Nobody here really cares. They don’t know what goes on in my life or their (the other girls) lives. You want us to sit here and listen and be quiet and we don’t want to. Nobody respects us. They just yell at us.
Me: Maybe if you showed a little respect, you could earn respect in return. Your attitude is not gonna get you anywhere in life.
Girl: I like my attitude. I like who I am and I ain’t gonna change. If somebody disrespects me or my family, I will beat them up. I get in trouble for fighting all the time, but people know they better not be messin’ with me. They’re scared and they know better.
Me: Is that the reputation you want? You want people to be scared of you?
Girl: If that’s what gets me respect.
Me: That’s no way to get respect. It’s just going to land you in jail. When you get older, you’re going to need a good reputation to get a job!
Girl: This is just the way things gotta be. I know where my life is heading, and I won’t change my attitude because I like who I am. If I end up in jail with my daddy then that’s just the way it is.
Me: (frustrated and defeated) Fine. If that’s what you want for yourself, then by all means keep on with your attitude. I just care about all of you and I want you know that there is a better way!!!
After that discussion, there was a lot of tension in the room. I could tell most of the girls felt the same way as the girl who had spoken out. They thought that their hard exteriors were what was getting them through life. And I started to think…maybe it has been so far.
So far in each of their lives, when faced with hardship and trials of the worst kinds, they have had nowhere to turn. They have no hope. After injury upon injury to their souls, they are hard and calloused. They are all scared young women, throwing up bombs of attitude and disrespect as a defense mechanism against their fears. The monsters in their lives are all too real. The inability to conquer those monsters is what makes them so defensive. For some, every moment is a fight, a struggle. So for me to ask them to lay down their weapons at the door of my classroom is ludicrous.
My approach toward them has always been loving, but since that discussion I have tried to be as honest and transparent with them as possible. I’ve shared with them deeply personal things from my own life, cried my eyes out in front of them, and expressed my love for them. A couple of weeks ago I poured out my heart and was reduced to tears while expressing the hurt I felt during service when I was unable to worship God because of their distractions. This caught their attention.
Who knew all you had to do what become a blubbering snot faced idiot to get a captive audience?!
Fast forward to this past Sunday. After the survey, the girl who I had argued with months before asked me for a sheet of paper to write on. I gave her a notebook and pen, thinking nothing of it, and continued on with my lesson. When she was finished writing she handed me a folded note and told me to read it after class. I told her thank you and set it to the side.
After class, when everyone was gone, I picked up her note to me and almost immediately started to cry.
I love you, Ambr.
The note was an apology for everything she had done and said. Here are a few lines from it:
” I want to thank you for everything you have done. I want to say sorry for everything I have done and said when you talk to us…I’m sorry for making you feel bad….this is from the bottom of my heart.”
She then, in typical middle school girl fashion, added a P.S. to the note saying she had some questions for me. These questions I can’t get out of my head since I read them.
1. Do you want me to do something better?
2. Do you believe in me?
“Do you believe in me?”
Oh, child, YES! Yes I do! If no one else on earth believes in you, I do. I’m sorry that so many adults have failed you. I’m sorry that you have to wonder if anyone cares. I’m sorry. But you have a hope. You have a future and fate different than that of your parents, if you so choose. I want to help you get there. Let me help you get there.
God is working. In my doubt and dread, he has been working. He is using me in ways I never imagined to minister to a group of misunderstood, misjudged, mislead, scared, broken, crazy, vibrant, fun, loud, outrageous teenaged girls. They are changing me more than they know. My heart is softening along with theirs.
I have seen the proof of God’s faithfulness in my life. I am seeing his promises fulfilled. I am ill-equipped for the task he has called me to. And I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point.