Perhaps the greatest kindness God bestowed upon me in ministry thus far was sending me where no one else wanted to go.
My first youth pastorate was in a church nestled in an impoverished community. It came with no youth and no salary or hope of one.
Standing at the pulpit you could see out to a halfway house. A quick search of predators in the neighborhood surrounding the church house would leave your computer lit up like a Christmas tree. Evidence of gang activity abounded and drug deals were carried out in broad daylight.
At the end of the street were a couple of apartment buildings. If tenants called the cops on the dangers around them, they were evicted. If they didn’t make the ridiculously high rent the day it was due, chains were placed on their doors and all they had was gone.
I spent some time in one of these apartments with a single mom of two special needs kids. The entire apartment was smaller than most people’s living rooms. There she lived with her children and her parents. This mom found her way to our church after two other churches said they couldn’t handle her kids and asked her to leave. The myopic view of those churches was our good fortune as we gained this sweet family and heaven recorded a new soul when this struggling mama gave her heart to Jesus on her first Sunday with the words “I need a bath” (translation: I need Jesus to cleanse my sins.)
It was on a visit to this family that I heard the saddest thing in my personal recollection. The little girl, maybe 3 years old, unable to walk well, tried to chase after my husband when we left calling out “DADDY” because she had no concept of what a daddy was. This was the heartbreaking reality of this community.
Nobody wanted them.
Nobody was fighting me for the title of youth pastor here.
A lot of people wondered what I was doing there.
I sometimes wondered what I was doing there.
These were not the kind of young people I was accustomed to. Theirs were not the problems I knew how to give counsel on. I was raised in good schools, with two ever-present parents who loved me. And those were the kind of kids I spent most of my time talking with.
It’s funny, the kids like me spend a lot of time praying for direction on their future. That’s the number one thing I hear. They just can’t seem to get settled on where they will study or which career will fulfill them most.
These kids never prayed like that. I don’t think they saw a future for themselves at all.
Eventually, we started feeding the neighborhood. We went outside every Wednesday in the summer and played soccer and ate $5 pizzas and did the shortest devotion possible, trying to get a little Word in before the fights started breaking out.
I remembered complaints I used to hear in those “good churches” with the “good young people” back when I was younger. Members in those churches used to comment during outreach that those kids only come for free food. Those kids who track mud on the carpet and don’t know how to dress for church should know better. Those kids who only come if there’s a camp or trip coming up are detracting from the attention our kids deserve.
I thought about that attitude during one of these Wednesday night outreaches whenI realized why God sent me there.
I listened to some of the young people who had shown up “just for the free food” talking. They were comparing dads. The kids in churches I grew up in on the nice part of town did that, too. Except when we compared dads it was about their occupation, when these kids did it they compared their location-as in, which jail are they located in or do we know their location at all?
After the conversation was over and the pizza was gone, we packed up to head home, but these kids wanted to stay…in the dark parking lot…next to the halfway house…across the street from drug dealers. Where were their parents? Oh…that’s right. They were locked up…or maybe they were purchasers at the drug house…or maybe they were out trying to earn a decent living, but forced to leave their kids to fend for themselves in the meantime.
In waves, all those snarky comments I had heard, and at times, may have even said, about these ragamuffin types smacked me in the face.
Yes, they only came for the food…because they were hungry with no one to feed them.
Yes, they track mud in the church…because no one was home and they’ve been out in the elements for hours.
Yes, they show up for special trips and camp…because they want a family vacation, but they have no family.
Yes, they act out for attention…because they want a dad and mom and the only way they know to get adult attention is by acting out.
We were the refuge for the ragamuffins.
I thought I was really doing them a favor. I couldn’t have known the kindness God was showing me by sending me to them. He was breaking me of my pre-conceived notions of what ministry is. He was showing me the “least of these”. He was simultaneously showing me how blessed I am and how I’m no better than anyone else.
I’m begging you, don’t write off those kids or those teens or those adults. Even if you think they are taking advantage of you. Take them in. Teach them. And in the process, I assure you, they will teach you.