By Eric Woods
“You don’t know me. You don’t understand me. You’re nothing like me.” These are words I hear all too often from the students I serve. And the truth is… they’re mostly right.
The youth in my ministry mainly come from backgrounds of abuse and neglect. Most have been in and out of foster care much of their lives. And more than a few have involvement with the juvenile justice system. None of them are currently living at home with their families.
It really is hard for me to understand what they’ve been through, what they’re thinking, and what’s bugging them today.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My family life wasn’t perfect growing up, for sure. But when I was their age, I wasn’t worried about where I was going to find to sleep that night, or if someone was going to do something to me they shouldn’t. The biggest thing on my mind was probably more like which seat I would get on the school bus, or whether there would still be chocolate milk available when I went through the cafeteria line.
But the more time I spend with these students, the more I realize that understanding who they really are, where they really come from, and what they’re really like is crucial to me being able to make the Gospel real to them, and bring the Word of God to life in their world.
A couple of weeks ago, just before Christmas, I asked them to turn to their neighbor and tell them about the best Christmas gift they’d ever received.
“I’ve never gotten a Christmas gift,” one high-school student said very matter-of-factly to the staff person sitting next to her. It was probably true, and those words shook the young staff person to her core. How can a fifteen-year-old never have received a Christmas gift?
And as she later related that student’s comments to me, I realized that my message about God’s amazing gift to us at Christmas probably didn’t have the kind of impact I thought it would.
Perhaps it was more powerful to her. (You mean, there’s a God who gave me a gift even when no one else has?)
Or maybe not. (Christmas is a joke, I don’t need anything from anyone. Or, Am I the only one who’s never gotten anything?)
Either way, it was a reminder to me to spend a few extra minutes to pass my stories and illustrations through the filter of my students’ lives: stories about going to work with my dad, about being in a car accident, or getting beat up at school… these have the potential to bring up very different memories and emotions for people who have had very different experiences in life.
I don’t avoid these illustrations altogether. They can be powerful tools to engage my students. But I do recognize now, more than ever, that used carelessly, they can do just as much to distract and discourage them.
I don’t always get it right. But the more time I spend with my students, in their world, the better I’m getting at bringing God’s truth to bear in their lives.