This past Monday, while I could have been sitting in a tree stand, trying to shoot my first deer of the season (or my life for that matter), I was driving a car full of middle school boys to Washington, D.C. instead.
On this particular day, our church, the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren, organized a trip to volunteer at a soup kitchen in D.C. Our church visits this soup kitchen several times a year, as it is less than a three hour drive, is in need of volunteers, and provides a great opportunity for us to serve and interact with a different population than we are used to in our small, homogeneous town.
This was Mitchell’s (a sixth-grader) and my first visit and the first visit for the eight other youth that attended as well. As one of two drivers, I was slightly nervous about managing five boys by myself in the car, but they turned out to be surprisingly well-behaved.
When we arrived, we were given the ambitious assignment of preparing turnip soup, sautéed greens, and bread pudding for the lunch. I say ambitious because I know at least my sixth-grader has never used a chopping knife. But the kids completed the tasks well and with joy. Despite the drizzly weather, they enjoyed visiting some monuments in D.C. afterwards.
On the way home, the boys played games they made up on the fly, one of which involved writing goofy stories.
Sadly, it has been a long time since I was in a car in which kids didn’t use electronics to occupy themselves on a road trip (my own fault, I know).
While they entertained themselves, I was reminiscing (in my head) about all my memorable youth group experiences growing up. There was the time in middle school in Minnesota when our socially-awkward pastor taught us sex education during confirmation class. I kid you not. The pastor told us that no matter what, the most important word of the lesson to remember was the “f word.”
“Does anyone know what the “f word” is?” he said.
Everyone in the room knew what the “f word” was. At first no one had the nerve to say it, but after much prodding from the pastor, one kid blurted it out.
The pastor’s mouth dropped open.
Apparently, the word he had in mind was forgiveness. When my friend and I told her mom later, she laughed so hard she had to stop the car.
Then, there was the time in high school when our church van collided with a Big Boy sign in Michigan during a ski trip. And another time when the van was already so full by the time my friend and I showed up for our road trip to Montreat, North Carolina that we got to ride in comfort in our youth group leader’s Caddy. I think it was on that same trip that one of my peers and I spent part of the trip home writing poems and raps about our trip. Not too different from Mitchell’s experience this past Monday.
The churches I grew up in weren’t perfect. But they were perfect for me at the time. They were places in which leaders encouraged questions, and the answers weren’t always cut and dried. They allowed me to think for myself.
Thankfully, Greg and I have found a similar place where we take our kids. Although radically different in many ways from my past churches, it is a place where all people are accepted and welcome, where love trumps belief, where questions are encouraged, and where children’s safety and spiritual growth are prioritized.
It is not perfect either. But at a time when there is so much violence and negativity in our world, the focus on youth serving others is inspiring. And I feel lucky I got to witness it this week.
Below: Mitchell and I in front of the Lincoln Memorial