…or the Gospel according to Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock:
Last week I was asked to write a letter to a former youth group participant. It’s their senior year of high school and soon they will be going on a retreat with a bunch of other high school seniors to fool around, maybe make a mistake or two, and engage in some kind of communal, deeply personal reflection. In the end they will know themselves and God better! Or something like that.
Prior to the trip, however, parents and guardians were encouraged to write to them. Not to give advice, but to affirm who the young person is and who they are becoming. In other words, to celebrate their resilience and fabulousness!
Both parents reached out to me about writing this letter. Both had their own ideas about what I would write. “Write about their future,” they said, “ask about their plans, what schools they’ve applied to, what major will they declare?” All good questions, I suppose, however I found myself asking a different question.
It’s a question that comes up for me constantly, but really became real for me when I was writing my thesis on doing contextual theology with teens. That is, as youth pastor/worker, what is my role? What am I being called to do? It was during this process of writing, asking questions, and reflecting that I realized (with the help of my professor) that as a youth pastor/worker I am called to be a different kind of adult.
One who listens, for real.
One who sympathizes, for real.
One who cuts through the bullshit, for real.
That is, someone who does not re-inscribe one particular society’s idea of what it means to be an adult and/or does not relate to a young person from a position of authority or power over them (i.e. adultism), but rather meets them with an orientation of openness and commitment to equality (or, at the very least, mutual respect). Something that says, hey, we’re in this – whatever this is – together. Solidaridad!
In order to do this, I believe I am called to be open to what and where they (the youth) take me, invite me, teach me, inspire me, challenge me, etc. That is, it is more than letting or allowing them to do this – cause let’s be real, young people will often make a way on their own, with or without us.
What is most unfortunate, however, is that we the adults don’t always see or recognize it/them as it is happening. That is, i/we don’t recognize or trust what God is doing in their lives, positioning them as some of our most important teachers. So we miss learning opportunities, times to be taught.
With this in mind, as a youth pastor/worker, I am finding that most of my role has to do with being a co-learner (or teacher-student) and sojourner; “one who is […] taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach,” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970).
Sure, sometimes I teach, but more often than not, I am being taught. Moreover, the young people I get to be in relationship with, do it in ways that are subtle and spontaneous, bold and courageous and because of this, i/we don’t always see it/them.
We don’t see it/them because we are looking for something we’ve seen before, similar to what we’ve known, what’s worked, what’s workable – a controllable behavior, a calculated outcome, a prescribed way of teaching or being in the world. We aren’t always ready to embrace something different.
Thankfully, young people are more open than most adults to discovering, embracing, and doing something brave, beautiful, and new. They ask questions like, but why? Why is it like that? Why do you think that way about that thing? Why can’t it be different? And then they respond with things like, who cares? and so what? So what if this is really me? Who cares if I’m different?
And that’s when i/we need to say, I do! I just don’t always know what to say or how to be real with you in that moment, to celebrate and affirm the beautiful gift that you have brought before me. I am still learning how to be different too. Thank you for being patient with me.