Two weeks ago, while we were in Philadelphia, my friend Cat picked me up from my mother-in-law’s and we drove through the 5 o’clock traffic to Radnor High School’s graduation. Cat and I were not related to any kid in any graduation robe. But we whooped and hollered and I cried like a baby as I watched a handful of kids I’ve known since they were 7th graders walk across that stage.
I met some of these kids back when I was charged with starting Young Life in the Radnor school district, back when I would go up to the high school every Thursday night with Chris and walk the track and pray. I would pray for future Friday night football games, when those empty stands would be filled, that there would be volunteer leaders who knew the names of students huddling around their styrofoams of hot chocolate. I would pray for unknown families whose entire lives might be changed by the story of Jesus. I would walk that track on those summer Thursday nights and beg God to give me some measure of bravery, to start this ministry from nothing, to find the people who loved kids there in that place, to show up at the middle school and high school until in the kids trusted me and knew I was somebody who really loved them. I prayed for help.
Then I did what I knew how to do. I volunteered at the middle school, co-leading (with an English teacher) an after-school creative writing club. I got to know a few of the administrators. I prayed every week with a group of moms whose kids were in middle and high school. And, eventually, two college students arrived to do it with me. Cat was 19 years old then. Now she’s one of my dearest friends in the world.
Those three and a half years were long and hard. We prayed a lot. We spent a lot of time with kids. We made a lot of rookie ministry mistakes.
And finally, just as things were starting to click, Chris and I faced a decision. He was offered a promotion at work. Would we follow it to California? Would that be placing his work ahead of the ministry God had given me and gifted me for? And what about if we stayed? August had just turned one. How would I continue to balance ministry/work and life with him?
You probably know what we chose. We moved to San Francisco. I left what people call “the ministry” and moved into full-day-mother-work. The kids who graduated two weeks ago? They had just finished their freshman year. And like that, I was gone.
There were moments when I felt the heavy weight of leaving, just as the ministry was most vulnerable, just when it could have plunged into disaster. Cat was alone, her first year out of college, our other leader had moved. I was guilt-ridden. Every Wednesday, that first year in San Francisco, Cat and I would have a phone date after I put August down for his nap: 2 pm my time, 5 hers. We’d pray for the gathering of kids that night. And that year, it grew. It grew and grew and grew. My guilt turned to astonishment. I hadn’t failed them. I had done exactly as I was supposed to. Without me, the ministry was thriving.
Don’t read that as a pity statement. I don’t mean it that way. I know—knew—I was gifted for that ministry. I knew God was using me those early years. But what I had to learn was that my role was only for a season. It was foundation-making. It was the slow work of gaining trust, being a face for a ministry until it had established itself deep enough not to need me.
Several weeks before graduation, at Radnor High School’s Young Life “club,” twenty seniors, most of whom I’d never met, stood before a room of 80 students and shared about the work God had done in them over the past four years. Most of those kids did not come from families of faith. They are only just discovering Jesus, they are only beginning to understand the power of God to heal and restore their lives.
As I sat in graduation with Cat and the other Radnor volunteer leaders, the thought occurred to me that I should look around and take in the gift of it all, the answer to the prayers I spoke around the track six years ago on the campus of an unknown high school among unknown teenagers. There was a second thought—something more human, broken—a thought about my awesomeness, how I’d done something great, how I’d been important. But it didn’t take long for the truth of Cat’s faithfulness, the volunteers’ generosity of time, the prayers of the faithful women who meet every Thursday morning to pray for the schools, to snap that thought. No, it was all a gift. It was all grace. It was all God’s sweet goodness.
I was given a moment to see those kids I drove around and ate pizza with and shopped with and helped with English papers, walk across that stage in celebration. I heard the names spoken aloud of kids we had prayed for but never met in all those years. And I sat beside friends in ministry who love those same kids I love and love me, even though we never served together simultanously. They have given their college experience to serve those kids I love. And we whooped for the kids crossing the stage together, just as we ought to have. I was reminded that only God can take our often failed attempts at ministry and use them to forever alter lives. It was all grace.
After, I hugged kids and posed with them for pictures and cried, touching every girl’s hair the way I couldn’t help but do, hugging parents, praising all of it.
Then I went home to my baby who couldn’t fall asleep on his own in his temporary room at his grandma’s. That week he always cried at every naptime, every bedtime. I rocked him and rocked him. And every time I tried to lay him down, he woke and cried. There were moments that week, opportunities to either sigh and groan and throw myself a lonely pity party, or to lean into the frustration, to hold tight to my little boy and bless the holding.
Those were moments of grace too, moments to recognize the gift of the rocking, to embrace the slow work of building something beautiful: these early years of foundation-making.