Zaira was born in Mexico, Eh Dho in Burma, and Mleh in Liberia. Add to the mix, Rhiannon, a white, middle school girl who I just witnessed give a beatdown to a Justin Bieber piñata. And Deanna, a young, African-American girl who is shy with words but not shy with selfies. A more improbable or diverse group we couldn’t have engineered even if we tried. Their lives have somehow collided with ours in Argentine around projects we’ve done through our Youthfront Missional Journeys, our efforts to rehab the abandoned Franklin Center, neighborhood barbecues and Bible studies, and a little something called Something to Eat. Something to Eat is Youthfront’s crisis response meal packaging program that we began a little over 3 years ago as a way for youth to bridge the gap between their privilege and the world’s poor. And now, with these 5 youth with histories and hormones that by all accounts should have cemented their isolation from one another, we’re finding out that the global gap isn’t the only one being bridged through this program.
These five youth are what we like to call Youthfront’s Something to Eat “interns”. All teenagers like to burrow black tunnels from our ears to our souls with their incessant whines of boredom, but maybe in Argentine, there’s just cause. Extracurriculars are underfunded and require alternative modes of transportation which aren’t easy to come by when cash is tight and your mom’s second shift is the same time as football practice. And as far as jobs go, they oftentimes find themselves competing with their parents for the few minimum wage jobs out there. There really aren’t many constructive ways to channel adolescents’ desires to participate in something bigger than themselves.
In Stephen Chbosky’s powerful, coming-of-age novel and film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a lonely introvert named Charlie gets swept up in generous friendships and in a journey of adolescent experimentation. In Charlie’s profound experience of belonging he says a phrase that poignantly captures and distills adolescent desire, “And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite”. There is a deep, pregnant, aching yearning in adolescents to unshackle themselves from human limitations and to experience the transcendent. So they often give themselves to those things that hold out a promise for ecstasy. These promises are manifest in the usual suspects of violence, drugs, and sex that offer immediate sensory experiences of the infinite, but also through seemingly more innocent means, like ecstatic worship experiences and serving the poor. All of these things may at their heart be a desire to be found in God, yet can simultaneously be destructively enacted.
For these youth in Argentine, maybe between the mind-numbing, lose-lose choice of Wii or weed, hanging out and serving with us might be considered “settling”. There’s nothing about us that is glamorous, we offer little to satisfy these sensory cravings. So maybe we’re default. But in the adolescent experience, aren’t most things of virtue and substance (including and especially parents) pushed onto the peripheries of their lives as they search for the infinite? And doesn’t being a parent of a teenager oftentimes feel like default? A kind of last resort, a fall back plan? I guess the temptation for all of us is to meet that felt need on their terms. It’s a temptation to be the parent who goes away for the weekend and leaves their kids at home with a wink and a case of beer in the fridge. It’s the temptation to be the youth worker who will one-up their antics, be the one to keep all the milk down in the chugging “gallon challenge”, or to escalate the adrenaline and emotion in worship experiences? Indulging adolescents in these ways, we risk losing our own identities and convictions on the chaotic waves of their identity exploration.
But what if we’re not really default? What if these kids actually want to be with us? What if the infinite becomes somehow tangible as they wrap plastic around boxes of Something to Eat meals destined for the hungry? What if God becomes present to them, not through finding acceptance through others most similar to them, but by finding belonging in radical difference? Maybe this becomes a witness to God’s future as they bend their lives to what will surely come.
We’ve short-changed adolescents in America. In spite of their professed boredom, in spite of their insatiable desire for stimulation, to be free from limitations, they’re still looking for something sturdy. They’ve seen the tired ways of youth in America. They’ve seen the violence, drugs, teen pregnancies and they’ve found them empty. They’ve felt that existential numbness and they’re looking for a new way of being an adolescent, a new way of being human. Maybe they’re finding some of that here. Maybe even through the simple act of naming them “interns” they’re getting a dose of dignity and nobility that they can’t find anywhere else. Maybe through prayer and reading of scripture, they’re finding themselves in a gospel story that has the power to bring all of their stories together. Yet it’s rarely confessed that way. It’s spoken with the same kind of resigned exasperation that we see from Peter when everyone was running away from Jesus in John 6. “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. Jesus was their default. And oftentimes is mine. I don’t know what you want us to say, Jesus. We really don’t have anywhere else to go. But you. You seem to be the only one who might possibly put us and our world back together again. They’re flirting with the Kingdom of God in all the awkward ways that adolescents flirt, and finding that there might actually be something and someone worth giving their lives to.