“I hadn’t experienced anything like it the first time my brother got shot.
I hadn’t experienced anything like it the first time I saw, from my bedroom window, a man die from a gunshot wound in the streets.
Y’all are weak!”
These pointed words were expressed to our group from one of the Sunshine interns during our final debrief. The previous day we had been within a block of multiple shots between two teenagers, thankfully no one was hit including the shooters, and a third of our students saw the exchange take place. We were never threatened, never really truly in danger, but this incident, understandably, shook up many of our students and caused fear, anger, sadness, and tears.
This past week 20 high school students and 5 adult leaders from Harris Creek Youth Ministry traveled to the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago to work with Sunshine Gospel Ministries. We took part in Sunshine’s BridgeBuilder’s program, which is a week long experiential service-learning trip. BridgeBuilder’s motto is to listen, learn, serve, and return and we certainly did all of those things.
Each day we served for 4-5 hours at a local elementary school, helping the janitorial staff clean and move classrooms. We worked really hard and got a lot done, significantly helping the janitorial staff and truly allowing them to take more days off this summer, but it was not work that changed the world by any means. We would then have an experience that was based around listening. These experiences ranged from a poverty computer simulation, riding the train and talking to people, sharing a meal with a homeless person, and watching the 13th documentary. There was much to learn from these activities as we listened and experienced, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” We would then end our day with our lesson. The topics ranged from the concept of Shalom, Economic Poverty, Justice as a Christian Mandate, Identifying and Loving the “least of these,” and Radical Hospitality. We learned a lot!
To be absolutely frank, it was one of the harder and more difficult weeks of my life. I had a greater understanding than most of our students and leaders of many of the issues we talked about, but it was still difficult. Sunshine very explicitly expressed their desire was not to convince everyone of their conclusions, but to invite us to a conversation. Many times they expressed having an “open-handed” approach to anything they believe because “we’ve been wrong before, we’ll be wrong again, and we don’t know what we are wrong about right now.” This did not deter them from speaking directly, however. I have never been in an environment where a group that I was a part of has been so challenged, confronted, made uncomfortable, and on the receiving end of hard and direct truths. There was nothing throughout the week that wasn’t done directly, without sugar-coating, nor beating around the bush. The best analogy that I could use is Sunshine shook up a soda bottle each and every day and left it up to us as leaders to let out the tension without allowing the cap to blow off.
Despite all of that, it was one of the greatest, most life-changing weeks I have been a part of, and I believe our students feel the same.
Some of the reasons I am so glad we went:
Some students had their faith reignited in ways I haven’t seen before, much different than the classic “camp high”.
Multiple students had God challenge them to rethink the direction of their lives and careers.
We were taught how to see the beauty in a neighborhood like Woodlawn, which wasn’t hard! The people were incredible and the care and love for their community was tangible to every one of us.
I watched many of our students engage really well through massive disagreement. One student expressed that’s one of the greatest things he learned, how to tell someone they disagree with them yet still maintain open communication and relationship. If social media is any indication, this is a lesson much of America could stand to learn.
Many students learned how to express their feelings in clear ways. Many adults I know can’t do this.
We learned how to listen to hard truths and confront, directly, things that hurt or upset us. Much of the culture we come from is passive aggressive and gossipy. This was a good lesson for all of us.
Many students learned how not to not respond with defensiveness automatically. This allowed them to continue to engage with the people and the lessons in front of them rather than shut down.
Because of this trip, reconciliation was made in a friendship between two parents in the Youth Ministry.
I learned, as a leader, staying silent out of fear or self-protection does more harm than good.
I learned that there is so much goodness in speaking “prophetically” or directly when there is space to unpack those truths or concepts afterwards. Sometimes when this is done from stage it can be a form of “pulpit bullying”, but during this week Sunshine knew that we would go back each and every night and debrief the day. They knew we would disagree with things. They knew we may not always like them, but thankfully they didn’t care. They confronted us with grace and truth (sometimes, even they admitted, more on the truth side) and because of this, I saw more life change happen within our leaders and our students than every week of Youth vs Wild I’ve been on combined.
Many “mission trips” that I’ve been on don’t confront the why. Groups go and serve and may feel convicted for the resources they have, but are never confronted with the why behind a people group being impoverished, marginalized, or oppressed. Instead, and this has been my experience for many trips I have been on, groups are left feeling good about themselves for serving for the week. They may have had their eyes opened to different parts of the world, but they remain unchanged.
That wasn’t the case for us. We learned about how redlining, corruption (both in the Chicago government and police department), Jim Crow era and other racially discriminate laws, and slavery has affected communities of color in our country and specifically Woodlawn. Sunshine directly confronted the savior complex that many people bring in to trips like this and spoke out against the American Christian tendency to ignore these issues. A lot of this was really hard to hear. But it was good and it lead to conversations throughout the week between students and leaders that produced greater understanding of the complex issues that affected the community of Woodlawn.
Nothing about this week was safe or comfortable, which I believe aligns closely with God’s character. It reminds me of the incredible scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe where the children are trying to figure out who Aslan is.
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
I much prefer situations, trips, and a life that is safe and comfortable. However, I have found, that isn’t where God chooses to reside. Instead, it is when we put ourselves out there in the midst of fear or discomfort that God meets us in incredible ways!
Back to the beginning situation. The final debrief continued on with most of our group offended and angry at the words that were spoken so pointedly. One of the other Sunshine interns ,who spent the majority of the week with us and who was also with us during the incident, finally responded to what had been said 30 minutes prior.
“When I first heard her call us weak, it pissed me off. I’m not weak! Who is she to call me weak… I’ve been sitting here the last 30 minutes thinking about what to say and God whispered in my ear ‘you are weak.’
Y’all, we are weak. And 2 Corinthians 12 says that in our weakness we are made strong. We aren’t called to boast in our strength, but in our weakness.
So yes, I am weak. And that incident revealed that. But thanks be to God that in our weakness we are made strong.”
For much of us, this was a beautiful statement to help bring closure to something that had so deeply offended us. His words also served as a reminder that so often we want to hold on to our strength rather than admit our weakness and give it over to God.
However, for one of our students in particular this statement was literally life changing. A deep wound that had been with this person since childhood based around the word “weak” was healed in this one moment. The truth that in Christ our weakness is made strong, which this student had probably heard numerous times in church, was finally believed and in an instant, the Spirit of God brought healing in a remarkably tangible way. It was beautiful. It was miraculous.
This only was able to happen because of the harsh truth that was expressed to us. I would still say today that the first intern could have and should have expressed her thoughts in a better, more gracious way. However, I also absolutely know that the follow up statement that brought healing would not have been said if the original statement would have been expressed with more grace. So for that, I thank God for what was said to us!
And that’s how I feel about the week. There were absolutely things said or taught that maybe could have been done in a different, or softer way. But, I don’t think the conversations that we as leaders had with our students would have been the same. I don’t think we would have been as changed. And I know without a shadow of a doubt that the Spirit of God moved in our discomfort in powerful and transformative ways.