I'm taking quite a few liberties with this post, but I think I've probably earned the right.
Some of the former members of the youth department of the church I pastored got together by Facebook, text and more conventional means of communication like the telephone, and decided to have a reunion last Sunday. While it was organized it wasn't a formal church sponsored occasion. I believe my daughter, Adrienne, spearheaded the effort, but this was entirely of their own initiative.
I didn't make it, but what was great about it was that it didn't matter. Many of them hadn't seen one another in years and they wanted to get together where they had spent so much meaningful time together - at church.
I can't tell you how proud I am of them. I served as the pastor of many of them from childhood to young adulthood. They were talented, creative, challenging, some badly in need of discipline, in trouble at home and at school.
They sang in the choir, they were ushers, they gave individual presentations in church, acted in plays on Christmas and Easter, took part in Vacation Bible School, argued, a few of them fought, they came and went sometimes - but we always considered them ours. I and their youth director Margi Taylor, along with others, scolded, preached and praised them. We challenged them to be good in school and taught them to be responsible. We, as adults, were often unsophisticated, not well organized all of the time. There were times when we stretched the boundaries of our imagination and creativity (like the time we had Christmas service at a local elementary school instead of church that included a program that crammed a little almost 100 children and youth, in order to keep anyone from feeling left out!) At one time or another, we all fussed about the money it cost and then spent it anyway.
And now here they are. Nearly all of them have some college in their background. Most of them post graduate degrees. They are working, doing internships after returning to school. There are some who are providing leadership to the community. One is a practicing attorney. His brother is a professional musician and teaches in community college. Some teach and work in public school, others are just hard working men and women.
Some are married, some have children, some are single and very career oriented. Most of them are still in church, though not all at New Mount Moriah. Some of those who do remain at the church, however, have assumed significant roles of leadership.
And they all make me very, very proud.
Don't get me wrong: we lost some, to the streets and worse. But what news about this 'unofficial' reunion showed me, was that we probably saved more than we lost. We didn't just try to keep them active. I insisted on substance and the youth workers we had, volunteers all, were committed to that. And although we wondered and endured quite a bit of criticism for that focus at times, they obviously caught a lot more than we knew.
Not only that, they had excellent parents, or grandparents, or guardians, or surrogate parents from the church. By surrogate church members I mean unofficial 'parents' at church, who took them home, sometimes picking them up from school, providing school supplies or school clothes (this was before the days of uniforms). There were two couples who visited the schools of some of these youth and knew their teachers. They remaind close to them through college and into young adulthood. This, without a formal program and with nothing in the way of a line item in the church budget for most of this. These youth had nurturing adults in their lives. And a nurturing institution, if you will, in the church. There were times when a few would just come up to the church and hang out -with or without supervision (yes, THAT would sometimes drive us all crazy!). In retrospect, they loved the place and us, probably more than we know.
Seriously, I doubt that they remember very few, if any sermons preached, very few, if any formal lessons. I believe what they will never forget is that they had adults in their lives, away from home and school, to whom they mattered very much and that those people were Christians.
I bring it up, not just to point out my own personal and spiritual pride in them. I bring it up because this church is in one of the poorest sections of the city. Off the beaten path, it is now in an area which is undergoing some redevelopment. At that time, however, until we asserted ourselves as a church, it was in significant decline. You could find just about every pathology associated with concentrated poverty and some of these youth and their friends saw it and were impacted by it...and overcame it.
So, when people ask me if I remain hopeful about the work I'm blessed to be engaged in, I've got one more reason to add to a pretty strong list: I know what God can do through His people!
I've seen the proof...