I will be finishing up the series on Practical Evil over the next few days, but I’m running a little short of time this morning. I am going through a re-write on my book “Renewed: The seven minutes that should have changed my life, but didn’t.” and I thought I would share one of the reworked chapters. In short, it is a lot less of my interpretation of scripture (and I’m not an expert anyway) and a lot more just telling stories of things God has done in my life, and how I’ve responded, or failed to respond. So here is the new Chapter 2: West Side Awesome. Enjoy!
Chapter 2 – West Side Awesome (or per Paul, possbibly “A girl and a gangster.”)
You would think a fast-growing subdural hematoma pressing in on my brain would be enough to wake me up. But I have an amazing ability to have something incredible dropped in my lap and not even realize it. These days I spend a fair amount time teaching kids and working with kids. I seem to have a bit of a flair for it. Or perhaps my church just can’t find anyone else to do it. Either way, the work I am doing now was a long time in the making.
My first true opportunity to minister to kids was while attending Benedictine University. It was smaller then, and was known as Illinois Benedictine College. As these things so often begin, I had my eye on a girl two years ahead of me and I wanted to impress her. She coordinated volunteers for community service and I signed up to tutor troubled kids on the west side of Chicago. At least that’s what I was told.
The assignment made it clear that these kids were distracted, and were a distraction to the other kids. They were way behind the other kids developmentally and I figured that the school was just looking to get these kids out of the teacher’s hair for a couple of hours a day. What the heck? Anything for a girl.
I very quickly found out that these kids were not troubled. They were pretty amazing, actually, but they were completely ignored. Without a stitch of formal training in educating kids, it was obvious to me that these kids didn’t get a lot of encouragement in their lives. They were inundated with the message that they were failures. They had never been told the truth: that they were created for a purpose and had something amazing inside of them meant to change the world.
My mantra with these kids was the same every day: “What is the strongest muscle in your body?” And the kids would scream, “My brain!” But that reaction took time. At first they looked at me like I was issuing a biology exam to fourth graders. No one had ever told them that they had strength; much less that it was in their ability to use their mind. But it didn’t take long for them to catch on and the responses were more enthusiastic every day. I made those kids say that mantra so much they probably have nightmares about it to this day.
This was children’s ministry and I had no idea what had been laid in front of me. But the neighborhood noticed. The west side of Chicago is not necessarily a friendly place. There is a lot of gang activity and my Scandinavian roots had me sticking out like a sore thumb. After leaving school one afternoon I found my car surrounded by what I assumed to be a local street gang. Great. I’m down here out of my element trying to help these kids, and now this. Let’s just say I was nervous. The quiet suburbs of Chicago are not the best training ground for this situation. I assumed they were unappreciative of the presence of an outsider. As is often the case when I’m bring judgmental, I assumed wrong.
I was confronted by a young man who appeared to be in a leadership role who asked me if I was the “gringo” teaching kids at the school. I confirmed his suspicions. He told me that his younger cousin was in my class and that he kept talking about his brain being strong. (I briefly gave myself a mental high-five. This was before the days of the much cooler fist-bump.) He told me I was keeping his cousin off the streets. I wasn’t quite sure if this was meant as a good thing. Chicago street gangs don’t really have the “positive affirmation” body language I was used to getting when someone was delivering good news. They tend to operate exclusively out of the “I could kill you with my bare hands” posture.
He then told me something that pried my suburban eyes open forever. He told me that he would take personal responsibility, along with his compatriots, to safeguard my car every time I came down to the city to work with the kids. He never smiled. We didn’t “hug it out.” We didn’t shake on it. But they followed through with their promise. It didn’t take long for them to learn my schedule and they actually started reserving a parking space for me after a while.
I didn’t deliver well rounded educational brilliance to these kids. We played games. We played “hangman” until I was informed by someone who did know how to teach that a body hanging from a rope might not be the best educational tool for these kids. But I did get it right on something important. For once in their lives these kids in my class were not being ignored. For once in their lives these kids had someone telling them that their Creator designed them for a specific reason and it was their job to figure it out. For once some guy was coming from outside the neighborhood and actually making a difference.
My response to all of this? Sadly, I walked away from it. I walked away from it. Things were obviously not going to work out with “the girl” and I started losing interest. I actually have a hard time even writing this because I am ashamed of what I left behind. Did those kids retain a lasting confidence in themselves or did they just go back to being ignored? I try not to think about it. I had a children’s ministry handed to me on a platter and I walked away from it because the semester ended. It never occurred to me until decades later what I had sitting right in the palm of my hand. I try not to think about God’s reaction when I abandoned what he had given me.
We were built to be heroes. It’s about time we started acting like heroes.