Most youth ministers know that if trouble is going to find you at youth camp, it will likely be on either the first night or the last night. At other times, the kids will be either too tired to bother with it, or still concerned enough about the potential consequences that the risk of flirting with trouble outweighs the reward. With that in mind, I was camped out in the hallway of the dormitory the first night of camp to be sure that if trouble came looking, it would find someone else’s kids. All seemed quiet, and I was ready to retire when the resident director of the dorm came marching down the hall. “You responsible for these gentlemen? I’m directly under them, and it sounds like drum line rehearsal in there. ” She pointed to what I thought was a well-behaved room of my guys.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered. “But I really hadn’t noticed any noise.” I was legitimately curious, ready to defend my youth but also ready to establish from the first day what my expectations were and exactly how I wanted them met. These boys were going to know that I was in charge. Roused from my reverie, I puffed out my chest, lowered my voice, and barged into the room ready to set the tone for an orderly, well-behaved week. “Fellows, what’s going on in here? Why is this poor lady complaining about the noise she hears from your room?”
Shawn and Jake looked innocent enough. They were in bed, and looked not just a little surprised that I had rushed in to question them. At first glance, I began to think that maybe the resident director was imagining things. But a second look around the room showed me that the noise had come from the boys rearranging the furniture. The desks were piled in one corner, the wardrobes in another, and the beds were shoved next to one another in the leftover space. I asked why they had redecorated the room.
Shawn jumped to explain. “Now, Greg, don’t get mad about that. It’s just that Jake forgot his blanket, so I told him that we could push our beds together and I would share mine.”
Shawn and Jake grew up near one another on one of the toughest streets in Charlotte. I moved to their neighborhood, called Enderly Park, almost a decade ago hoping to be a mentor to young men like them. Fresh out of seminary, I was hopeful that by being near the poor, I could be a better minister. I imagined that inviting them into my house would narrow the distance that race and class had built between us. I wanted to do the hard work of reconciliation with my neighbor and thought that actually being neighbors would make that much more likely.
Years later, much of that has turned out to be true. My community has walked together through both difficult and joyous moments that have stirred up our hunger for justice, and shown us that reconciliation is really possible. When it happens, it is a gift that comes by grace alone. But my impulse to play the role of mentor has sometimes made it difficult to listen to and hear the truth my neighbors tell me. I fancy that I have life mostly figured out and that I am able to diagnose what is wrong with Shawn’s life, or Jake’s or Ray’s. If they would but listen to me, then I could remake them into my image and, if not fix their issues, then at least put them on the road to recovery.
But Jesus has flipped my way of seeing the world. Faithfulness demands that I be a student of Shawn and Jake and the other neighbors of Enderly Park instead of a mentor to them. They are better mentors than I am a student, but we’re making progress. They have been a source of encouragement many times, as good mentors are. In their own ways, they have helped me to recognize the gifts I do have, and encouraged or even demanded that I express them. They do this through lots of small actions that remind me that I am a part of their families and they are part of mine.
Mentors help us learn to see the truth about our shadow sides as well – our weak spots, the idols we worship. The good ones help us to discover that truth on our own and nudge us toward a better way. That night at youth camp, sixteen-year-old Shawn spoke a prophetic word to me when he let me know that he was just sharing his blanket with Jake. I left his room deeply convicted about my own faith. I had to recognize what I really believe: Jesus is alright, but in a pinch, Visa is better. Were I in the same situation as those young men, I would turn to the false gods named Money and Wal-Mart to save me. Had they just told me what was happening, I would have done the same for them, feeling sorry for them the whole time.
Shawn and Jake knew that love was better. They knew that my charity was not what they needed. They just needed to share. They showed me that in the most striking way possible: a single blanket shared between two teenage boys; a friend gladly taking on an uncomfortable position to care for another; the willingness to suffer a little discomfort for the sake of a brother in need; a problem solved by resourcefulness and creativity instead of money.
I still have much to learn. I am not the quickest student. But I am present, ready to submit to the lessons my unexpected mentors have to teach.