It was one of those crazy days as a youth pastor. In fact, the craziness seemed to be becoming the norm instead of the exception lately. I was stuck in my office working on paper work that someone above me seemed to think was so important that it must be done now! I continued to work on my budget, lessons, agendas, among other things on my "To Do List" that went all the way down to the end of the page. My students need me, my leaders need me, and my parents need me. It seemed so important at the moment for me to sit in front of my computer screen and work on the best possible plan to have an effective student ministry.
All of a sudden one of those annoying interruptions occurred. Someone knocked on the door and gave me a slip of paper with a name and address on it. Apparently there was a young teenage girl who had attempted to commit suicide. Fortunately for her, she was not successful. But now she is in the psychiatric wing of the hospital and could use a visit from a pastor.
I did not recognize the name. Questions immediately came to my mind which showed my annoyance to this interruption. Who is she? Not sure. Does she attend the youth group? No. Do her parents attend the church? Not really, her mom occasionally. Is there anything you can tell me about her? Not really. This girl does not even know who I am. If I didn't visit her, she wouldn't even know one way or the other. She is not a contributing member of this Student Ministry! But a small voice inside my head would not allow me to make up a simplistic answer to avoid what I knew I had to do.
That night I went up to the psychiatric wing of the local hospital to visit this teen that I have never met. In fact, when I introduced myself to her, she thought I was one of the security guards. The fear, apprehension and annoyance that I felt when I first received the information about this girl turned into guilt as I began a conversation with her that ended up including three other students that were so hungry for someone to just talk to them without hate, judgment, anger and abuse. I walked away from that night, not only knowing that the Holy Spirit used me to reach out to this teen, but also I was flooded with his conviction of helping me to understand what is really important to the Lord. Angels don't get excited about the latest youth program that I put together. Believe it or not, I really don't think that the angels are just sitting on the edge of their seats ready to explode with excitement when I turn in my budget for the up-coming year . . . ON TIME! But when we go after the one lost sheep and we are able to bring them into the flock the Bible tells us that there is a huge party in heaven going on. God has a BIG HEART for the fringe kids.
But this story doesn't end here. The Holy Spirit changed me heart with this young girl who was on the edge. Eventually she was released to go home and she decided to visit the youth group. At the time, she found her identity within the Goth culture. As she stepped into the youth room I was absolutely thrilled about her taking the initiative to come check us out! What I wasn't ready for was the gut-wrenching response that many of my "regular" students made in response to her appearance. There was a small group of students who immediately judged this teen strictly by her outward appearance. For all they knew, a Satanist just entered our sacred youth room and was going to bring down a curse on all of them! Knowing what I knew about this young lady, I was appalled and horrified by the very blatant and disrespectful reaction towards her by my youth group. This entire story could have had a very bad ending to it all. But it was only by God's grace that it ended up well.
First of all, this young girl continued to come because of the fact that I followed through with the Holy Spirit's prompting of me to reach out to her. Over the years the spiritual transformation that took place in this young teenager was incredible. She developed into one of my most solid Student Leaders. During her Senior year she lead the drama team in directed an incredible play dealing with issues of school violence, bullying and gossip. She is now a college student who is studying to become a youth pastor.
Secondly, when the timing was right, her testimony became one of the most convicting stories that our youth group needed to hear. Once our youth group heard her story, many of them were convicted about how they initially reacted to this peer when she first came to youth group. How were they supposed to know that she was hurting, lost, and ready to end it all? How were they supposed to know all that was going on underneath this tough exterior of a teenage Goth? Instead, she fit a stereotype and it was all too easy to throw a bunch of harsh, critical judgments her way hoping that she would eventually just disappear.
In John 4 Jesus was confronted with a woman that fit many stereotypes of his day: she was a sexually promiscuous Samaritan woman. She knew very well the labels that her culture threw at her simply from the fact that she choose to get water in the heat of the day when she would have had the best possible chance to not have to run into anyone who would look down on her, judge her, label her. Jesus in his wisdom had a lesson that he needed to teach his disciples, but he had to get rid of them first in order to approach the woman. Once Jesus confronted the woman, the disciples came back into the picture with their eyebrows raised wondering what in the world Jesus was doing talking to this Samaritan woman. More than that, they were anxious to eat and get on the fast track out of Samaria, which represented the fringe of society. Little did they know that they would be spending a few days there immersed in ministry as the transformation of this woman impacted the whole community. I can only imaging the disciples apprehension, the desire to be with their own kind, questioning the need for them to make a layover in Samaria. Over those two days I'm sure that they were challenged to reach out to those who may be considered the fringe of society.
It is our responsibility as youth leaders to model what it means to reach out to those students who are on the fringe. There are times when a name comes across your desk and you are going to be faced with the decision to past the labels, stereotypes, and masks in order to reach out to a teen wcontinue doing what seems so urgent at the moment, or will you drop everything in order to do the important: looking ho is desperately hurting and lost inside. The paperwork will get done and youth events always have a way of coming together but will you be ready for that student who doesn't quite fit in? Are you modeling this type of grace in front of your youth group which struggles with labels every day? My hope is that we all lead the way in being grace-givers to those students on the edge who may hide behind a tough exterior but on the inside are desperate for God's grace to reach out to them and change them from within.