Almost five years ago I was approached by the youth pastor at our church and asked if I wanted to begin leading sixth grade girls. Because my son had been so greatly impacted by the youth program at our church, I immediately said yes. I also felt strongly that I had insight and guidance to give to young women. Our church operates in a special way and when you lead students, ideally you stay with them throughout middle and high school. That’s seven tentative years of commitment.
When sixth grade began, and we had our first youth group, I found myself feeling lost. I had only raised a boy and had minimal experience with pre-teen girls. I did not have a typical upbringing and realized very quickly that I was out of my element. I did not understand how to be genuinely silly. I was very self conscious. I had a hard time truly feeling connected. What had I done?!?
Youth group was loud. We played a lot of messy games. We sang and hugged and talked. I had never been to anything like this. It felt annoying at times. It didn’t make sense. Sometimes the games grossed me out. I wanted to be present and participate but I also wanted badly to run away and quit.
Growing up, I lived a life that was full of pain, abuse, horrific things that kids should not see or experience. I didn’t understand relationships, I had “friendships” out of convenience or obligation. I used people and took all I could from everyone I met. I did not know God, I had never been to any sort of formal church and had never been a part of any youth program. I had minimal freedom in my heart and lived a life full of fear, shame and disconnection. As an adult, I carried my insecurities and shame into my life. I protected myself from vulnerability. I avoided emotions and trusted no one.
I was not sure how to mesh my survival skills with my present day circumstances. I believed leading would be an easy weekly commitment: I could show up, hang out, go home and repeat until graduation day. It’s not that I didn’t care or want my experience to be fuller, I just didn’t know I was lacking and didn’t know how to be any other way.
Over the past four years, in a surprising but also not surprising twist, my girls (and many other students) have been the ones to shift my heart. I have seen them be kind, vulnerable and silly. I have watched them grow and share and love. I have heard of their heartache and my walls have softened. I have grown to love them so greatly and began to release my fears and become more childlike. In the space where I believed I was leading, they led me to places I didn’t know I needed to go.
And here I am, at the end of a weeklong summer camp with our church’s youth group realizing that what started out as serving and commitment has turned into a deep love and adoration. I love every one of my girls and every one of the students that are “not mine”. I love every leader and door holder and worship leader and speaker. My heart comes alive in their presence. My soul is filled up with the sound of their laughter, watching them all worship, hearing them speak truth over each other. Seeing them all fall in love with the creator of the universe. I am in awe.
Camp is for them but man, it feels pretty spot on for me. Late night wild dancing and laughter can seem childish to grown ups but sometimes, it just what the spirit needs. My week consisted of minimal sleep, surviving on red bull and coffee, losing my voice singing and riding on a bus a cumulative 37 hours with 72 high schoolers.
I loved every second of it.
They always say that serving isn’t just for the charity or group you’re volunteering with; that it does something for the person who gives of their time. I feel so strongly that I am getting a bargain here. I can’t imagine my life without these humans.