Some of us may be nostalgic about high school, but I've never met anyone who would willingly re-live their middle school or junior high years. This fact may partially explain why so many people have responded to the viral YouTube video of 14-year-old Jonah Mowry. In August, just before the start of the new school year, Jonah sat alone in his bedroom at 4 a.m. and made an emotional video in which he fights back tears and "speaks" through index cards, telling his story of being bullied. Jonah writes:
I look happy, right? Well, I'm not. What you all see is the fake me. . . Suicide was an option many times. I get bullied every day. This started in first grade . . . and I'm starting eighth grade next month. I am not ready. I have one close friend left. The rest are starting high school. I'm scared to go back. A lot of people hate me. I don't know why. But I guess I do. Cuz I kinda hate me, too. Gay. Fag. Dick. Douche. Homo. Asshole. The list goes on and on. I can't do this anymore. I'm tired of being torn down . . . and building myself up to only be torn down again. But . . . I'm not going anywhere. Because I'm stronger than that. And I have a million reasons to be here.
At the time he made the video, Jonah says he was haunted by thoughts of the previous school year, coming home many days in tears over the harassment he was enduring from other students. He couldn't share this burden with anyone at home as he wasn't ready to reveal the reason for the bullying and "come out" to his parents about his sexual orientation. So, as many teenagers do, Jonah turned to social media to reveal his hurt. The heart-wrenching YouTube video was really meant as a message to his older friends, letting them know of his pain but also his resolve to take a stand against "the haters" at his school. With encouragement from his friends, Jonah posted the video to Facebook for others to see.
But the video remained mostly unknown until early December when celebrity blogger Perez Hilton stumbled upon it and featured it on his website. Jonah's message has since been viewed more than 7 million times and the teen has received an outpouring of support from others who know what is like to be bullied. I first became of aware of the story when one of the teens in my youth group—a young guy who on the surface seems to have it all together and is perfectly happy—posted Jonah's video to his Facebook page and added this note:
I try not to talk about it, or even remember it if I can avoid it, but for a long time, especially in elementary school, but even up through a lot of freshman year, I remember feeling just like him. It's horrible, and I don't really know where I'd be if I hadn't found friends, because to an extent it's a mindset that never leaves you, just one you do your best to ignore. If you know someone like this, it's really easy to makes things better. Smile at them in the hall, ask them about their weekend, tell them about yours even. And believe me when I tell you this; it means the world.
How many other teens like Jonah are out there? How many are carrying private pain but have no one to tell? The good news is that Jonah has found friends who love him and cherish him. In the wake of his video going viral, he has received hundreds of messages of support and gratitude from those who have been touched by his courage. In the past few months, Jonah has even posted some new videos in which he is smiling and laughing. He attributes his new positive attitude partly to the response to his video and partly to the unconditional love he received from his parents after finally sharing with them that he is gay. He even took his new message of hope to "Good Morning America" recently, encouraging other youth to reach out and share their burdens with others.
This season of Advent is often ushered in with talk of the end of the old ways and an ushering in of something new that God is about to do in the world. We wait with anticipation for that new life that comes each time we welcome Christ again into our midst.
I wonder what the teens in our own communities are waiting for this Advent season? What changes do they desperately need to know and experience so that they might fully receive God's gifts of hope, joy, peace, and love at Christmas? Many of us become so caught up in the nostalgia of Christmas that we fail to see Advent as a time to look ahead, not backward, at the potential for God's love to heal a hurting world. What many young people need is not necessarily the often too-sweet message of an "all is right with the world" Christmas season, but rather the radical message of Advent that God can make a change in our broken lives.For those of us who love and care for young people, perhaps our challenge is to really get to know them, private pains and all, and to help make real for them the Advent promise of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.