Unsung Heroes Of Ministry
I love my job as chaplain in juvenile hall. Juvenile has to be one of the most difficult environments in our community in which to minister, but I’ve grown to a point where I just love doing services there and I love working with that population of young people. What makes me raise the issue is an incident that took place in juvenile hall more recently. While on vacation, virtually all of the young men who had been there for a long time and knew me, I’d come to call them the elders, had departed in a relatively short amount of time. Leading any type of program in juvenile hall is always a dicey proposition, but it becomes significantly more so when one has a group of elders who will watch over the newcomers and keep them in line.
Returning from vacation, I found myself confronted with a new group of kids. They had no idea who I was nor did they care, but they were ready to do what they could to disrupt my attempts to provide them with a religious program. The message communicated through such antics was that this was their world and they had the power to make or break me if they so choose. The assumption being that the latter would be the case. I couldn’t help but laugh at their shenanigans for I’d been through this so many times before. My laughter seemed to catch them off guard and they eventually settled down enough to find out what I thought was so funny. I told them of the many years I’ve been doing this ministry and how much I had come to love ministering in this institution and loving the young people who are in it. I also told them about the many other times other young men had attempted to disrupt my program in a similar manner and I understood what was going on. Matter of fact, I’d done the same thing to my teachers when I’d been younger as well.
The young men smiled at my response and that let me know that I had passed the cool test. The smarts test would be the next obstacle that I had overcome. They asked questions like, if Adam and Eve were the first man and woman created and they had only sons, then where did Cain get his wife? Or, if
God can do anything, can he make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?
I started to laugh at this and said, how should I know, I’m just a lowly pastor? Difficult questions like that were far beyond my ability or anybody’s ability to answer. Again, they’re smiles. Let me know that my response was sufficient.Thus, we moved on to test my knowledge of the streets, popular music and the correctional system. I answered each of the questions as best I could, readily admitting my ignorance on issues that were outside my purview. I must have passed muster, though they eventually allow me to get on with my program. Additional questions were put forth in the weeks that followed until they finally satisfied that my credentials as a human being, as a clergyman, were in order. Such testing is a necessary part of the acceptance process in such an environment. As I mentioned before, I was in their world. Although they did not possess the power to choose their own speakers, they did possess the power to determine the type of response that speaker would get. Many people don’t understand the importance of this process and therefore feel threatened, get angry, stop coming in because of the grilling to wish they’re submitted by the population.
Actually, what those young men were doing was not all that difficult from what a pastoral search committee does when interviewing perspective pastors. Although the social skills of my group might be a bit rougher, the truth is that those young men were less interested in my answers then in how I responded to the challenge posed to my authority. Once comfortable with my laid-back style, permission was granted for me to present my ideas. Extend this scenario out several months to when a new group of kids came in and the prior group had risen to become my elders. New arrivals who expected to make a name for themselves by disrupting their program were quickly silenced by the veterans. New arrivals now had to adjust to me rather than the other way around.
That was why my return from vacation came somewhat as a shock. Within a short two weeks, virtually everyone that I had known for so long had left, and unexpectedly I was forced to run the gauntlet of credibility once again. I came out of it all right as I expected, but thought later how blessed I was to be able to work with such an insightful, intelligent, and challenging group of young men. I spoke to a group of church youth not long ago and the experience could not have been more different. My credentials were never once challenged and my presentation went off without a hitch. But I left wondering if anything I said had registered with any of those young people. They had certainly been well behaved, but their silence provided me with no insight whatsoever into their thought processes. Every week, such unsung heroes, youth workers, must march forth to attempt to communicate with this difficult population of young people who outwardly might appear to be compliant, well-behaved, and obedient, but inwardly remain an enigma to everyone. Certainly to me.
An original podcast by Christian Podcast Central