It was different before. I would hear about the shooting, pray for the families, read the articles and thoughts of my friends, debate whether I should say anything or not… I had a routine (which should NOT be routine). This time though, I began to think about my kids- the youth who have worked their way into a special place in my heart; the youth who are spread out at every middle school and high school in the area.
I thought about the many different situations they find themselves in every day. I thought about the struggles I know they are going through. I thought about what must go on, or not go on, in the life of a teenager for something so tragic to be the “next best step”. I thought about their interactions and relationships within our group and wondered, prayed that they were enough. I thought about the ways I have reached out to them, wondering if I was reaching far enough.
This shooting hit me harder than before, harder than I could have expected. What if it had been at one of their schools? What would I do? Where would I go? Would I wait in the sanctuary, doors open, ready to pray with those who came seeking God? Would I rush to the school and stand with parents watching for their children to walk through the door, praying that they would actually walk through the door? Would I go to their homes and sit on the couches with their friends as we watched the news and prayed?
What would I say? Would I have the right words? Would I even be able to speak?
Last week, my youth started a conversation about stereotypes and I didn’t want it to be this relevant. I didn’t want to have a real life example of why we are having these conversations. I wanted it to be a “hypothetical” conversation in which they realized that they can play a positive role in the relationships and dynamics at their school. I didn’t think about saying “you could be the one to prevent a shooting.”
I won’t enter the argument about guns in this post. I WILL enter the discussion about other things we can do to help prevent the next tragedy. I may not be able to stand in the way of someone forcing their way into the building, but I can make sure that every single one of my youth knows they are beautiful, beloved, children of God – and members of our family at the Kirk and because of that they have people to go to and no reason to take such drastic steps.
As I think about what I can do as these tragedies become the norm, I look to the relationships and interactions I have with my youth. What I share today is by no means a complete list of ideas, but I see it as my own starting point and offer it to you as each of us wonders where to begin.
Don’t just talk to them – listen. Our children want to talk, and I am seeing that more and more each week as I listen to the conversations my youth are having. The insight they bring to difficult conversations is astounding and it should be listened to. We should follow up with questions, seeking to understand more about what our youth are seeing and thinking. “That is interesting” is not what we need to say when a youth describes something that is bothering them. “What do you think about that?” or “What makes you say that?” opens conversation – it makes them feel valued and important, like what they are saying means something. BECAUSE IT DOES AND THEY ARE.
Don’t prescribe a solution – listen. I am almost thirty years old, so theoretically high school wasn’t that long ago… right? The problem is that the world is drastically different. The things that my friends and I struggled with in high school are so minute compared to the struggles of today. While I can relate to the youth in my own mind, in their mind I am on the verge of receiving a senior citizen’s discount. What I have to say about my experience in middle school and high school is not what they care about – sharing what they are experiencing NOW is what is important. If we can step back and let our youth talk rather always having our own “cool” story, we just might understand a bit more about them and what is going on in the world. These kids are smart, y’all. And funny. Just let them show you and learn from them instead of thinking they need to learn from you!
Youth don’t just want to play games – they want to talk. I know, I know. They have so much energy and sit in chairs all day. I was surprised to, but when I spent time with my college students and some of my youth one-on-one, I was shocked to hear they want to spend more time having real conversations about how to live a life following God’s word. This doesn’t have to be boring, I promise. There are thousands of ideas floating around about how to incorporate discussion into a fun activity. Just don’t default to solely fellowship. Default to faith development and look at the many ways that can happen. I imagine that the youth who are struggling in relationships, in school , and in work are not growing in faith and community because they got to play basketball on Sunday night. They WILL grow if they can have a real conversation with their peers… and maybe they can play basketball while they do it!
Our youth are so insanely smart – we just need to give them a chance to show us. I have absolutely loved grabbing donuts with my youth and letting them talk about whatever is on their mind. It didn’t take long to realize that I was doing everything based on what I thought and nothing based on what they wanted and needed. We don’t know what is best for them and we can’t prescribe solutions that will fix every problem. If that were possible, we would not have struggled as teenagers because our parents and teachers would have fixed every problem for us. The world has changed and our youth are the only ones who can tell us how they see it and what they need to live in it.
I don’t know what I would do or say or where I would go if something happened at one of our local schools. I pray that I never need to figure it out. I do know that I can do everything in my power to make sure my youth know their value and that they are beloved children of God. I do know that I can put any piece of paperwork aside to clear my attention and listen to what they have to say. I do know that every day I work with youth, I will do everything I can to make sure they know they have a place to come if they ever need to talk, cry, or just sit.
It is hard and takes so much more than thoughts and prayers, but we can do our part to make sure our youth know that they don’t need to turn to exclusion, bullying, and violence to be heard. The question is will we put our own ego aside and let their light shine for a minute or two?
Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Transitional Associate Pastor, Youth & Young Adults
Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian (Cary, NC)