Saturday, May 9, 2009

The words of life

I was talking to one of the mentors last week about the experience she's been having with her "mentee" (or "Mento" as I like to call them). Her Mentee has had a hard time with the reading material and the homework and she's struggling to do her final project for Affirmation. And I'm the first to admit, the reading isn't easy. It's not a lot to read, but it's MORE--these kids lives are so busy and overscheduled that I know it's like ONE MORE THING TO DO. And the reading isn't light and breezy stuff either. It wasn't written for 14 year olds, so it's not always easy to grasp without paying a lot of attention and thinking about it. So I understand it could be difficult. And then the Affirmation project: I've asked each of the kids to do a project that expresses where they are in their spiritual journey--what questions are they asking, what kinds of things are they thinking about. The assignment is fairly open-ended and the final product could be just about anything. Some kids are doing videos, a couple are writing songs or making artwork. But this is a hard assignment, I know, because not only does the Affirmand have to figure out what he/she is thinking about in terms of faith, they need to come up with an interesting way of showing that. And then they actually have to produce it. Make something to demonstrate that. And the mentors have to help--they aren't responsible for doing the project but they need to help the Mentee figure out what shape the project might take, and help motivate and support them as they do it.

When this Mentor and I spoke last week I was trying to reassure her that what her Affirmand does or does not do in this program is not ultimately all that important. It's important that the Affirmand shows up. It's important that she, the Mentor, shows up and walks through this with them. I have no illusions that the kids will remember much of what they read or discussed during this program. I think they will remember we met together once a month and shared a meal and that it meant something. I think they will remember their mentor and that there was someone in the church, an adult not in their family, who was willing to take time away from their own families and work and lives to spend time with them. That there was an adult who wasn't obligated to, who actually cared about them.

Though there was much that was wrong and harmful to me about the ideology of the church I grew up going to, there were a few adults in that church who cared about me and let me know it. Adults who invited us teens into their house for pizza parties and guitar parties, who went with us on retreats as chaperones and made us laugh and laughed with us, who tolerated the nicknames we gave them and the personal questions we asked them. I remember my teenage years as being quite often a dark time. I called suicide hotlines a couple times. I almost ran away from home a couple times. I was depressed a lot and felt so horrible about myself that I thought I wouldn't survive at times. Of course, I'm not sure you would have known this if you were just giving me a passing glance. If most people could tell that this was my reality, they didn't let on. But I do remember one time in particular being at a church picnic. I was in a bad place that day, a bleak, sad, I'm nothing, what's the point, kind of place. Except of course, on the surface I was just humming along, playing the part of a good church kid at a nice summer church picnic. But out of the blue, one of the adults who hung out with the youth sometimes, came over to me, and stopped me in my tracks. I was playing with some of the little kids, trying to help keep them out of trouble and amused, and this woman came up to me and said, "I really like you, Lenora." And I said, "What? What was I doing?" And she said, "It wasn't something you were doing. I just wanted you to know that I really like you." And then she walked away. And that was that. Except I've never forgotten it. It happened about 40 years ago and I remember it as if it was yesterday. And I certainly wouldn't say that's why I'm a person who is still in the church today, who still tries in her own stumbling fumbling way to follow Jesus, someone who despite her best efforts at times, still feels like God is there and God cares...but those words at that moment in my life made a huge difference. And even if they aren't the only reason I'm still here plugging away at this whole faith thing, they are a big part of the reason.

So that's what I told that Mentor on the phone last week: The fact that you care about this girl, the fact that you spend time with her, that you enjoy her, that you "like" her, that's all that matters. Not the reading, not the project, not the homework, not the discussion. Just saying with your life and occasionally with actual words, "I really like you," that's all that matters. That's all I really needed in my heart of hearts when I was 14. That's all I suspect these kids really need from any of us today.

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