It could have been some kind of teleportation. It was almost as if the security guards at the door knew it too. They guarded their portal with a quick appraisal of me, a head-to-toe assessment that told me that I was in the wrong place. Maybe out of compassion they would have said something to me, but I think they wanted to see how long it would take this poor sap to realize this wasn’t the Miller’s 60th anniversary celebration. They wanted to see me swim like a scared fish in a current of belt buckles, tossed and turned by the accordion’s norteño twang, confused by the heedless consumption of carnitas and Coronas only to be spit back out onto the parking lot like Jonah’s hungover whale. If ever there was a profile for the consummate quinceañera crasher, I had neither the hair color nor the dance floor finesse to flow with 15 year-old Mexican-Americans and their uncles from Juarez. After a few minutes of scanning the ballroom for my neighbors and chastising myself for being so woefully and so gringo-ly underdressed, I saw Nancy in her billowing gown and her mother, Martha, fretting about like her biblical namesake. I soon settled in with a plate full of mole, sidling up next to the speakers filling the hall with songs steeped in wistful, but energetic memory of the motherland. And a smile grew in me as I sat back in a deep sense of gratitude and wonder. How did I ever get to this place?
It had been a long weekend already. Two nights prior, I’d stayed up until 3am finishing a final paper for grad school. The night before I was facilitating a service retreat in Argentine for 100 students from a suburban church in Kansas City. And then there was the Franklin Center Fall Festival. All morning long, I was busy with the youth in spiritual formation exercises and then I pulled up to the Franklin Center parking lot. It was full of tents with vendors preparing skewers of pastor, wannabe carnies peddling the promise of a 10-cent goldfish on a dollar and a ping pong ball, live music echoing all the way down Metropolitan Avenue, and the students from the church readying carnival games that Emily and Amber had prepared. I walked up to a second floor window and peering out over the parking lot through broken glass I thought to myself, “How did this ever happen? This is amazing. I don’t deserve any credit for this.” At the center of it all was Ruperto.
Ruperto is a guy who I’d run into on another Argentine committee a couple of years ago. I knew there was something special in him when he came to our meeting with a scale mockup of the stage and judging procedure for the menudo contest at Silver City Day. Ruperto is a larger than life character who grew up in Kansas City, lived under a bridge, homeless in Chicago, went off to the military and spent many years of his life as a building engineer for Marriott before retirement where now he gets about 4 hours of sleep a night between writing homespun novels where the line between his own story and fantasy bleeds seamlessly into one another. Ruperto lives right behind the Franklin Center and now he spends much of his day scheming with others about what we can do next for the Franklin Center. This Fall Festival was his work, his passion, his crazy dreams that brought a glimpse of a better future for our neighborhood.
Ruperto and I were talking to a TV reporter when Kelly came up to us. Kelly is an electrician who lives a couple of blocks from the Franklin Center. In his own words, Kelly is ‘blue collar all the way’–the kind of guy that doesn’t have time for talk or bureaucracy, he wants to just get stuff done. That day he had one thing on his mind–getting electricity to the Franklin Center. Kelly begged Ruperto and I, spouting off his credentials and his contacts in City Hall. Getting a temporary permit to get us electrical service was routine business for him. Three days later, Kelly kept his word. Cars were stopping by the side of the road as they saw lights shining out of the cafe windows for the first time in more than 3 years. By the end of the week, he had nearly the entire building rewired and reconnected. And the question hit me once again, “How did this happen?”
In some way, I think each of these stories are connected to one another and I think it comes down to the difference of leading and being led. We do so much to control our lives, to be the architects of our own destinies, and to maintain appearances of being in charge. There’s undoubtedly an element in these very letters where I attempt to communicate to each one of you that we’re competent, that we’ve got things under control here in Argentine and that we’re “leading” something really special. But the more that I look back on big milestones on our life in Argentine, the more I realize that we had nothing to do with them. The greatest gifts that we’ve received here have been exactly that–gifts. If it had been up to me, the fall festival would have been a couple of teenagers in the parking lot with a handful of kids carving pumpkins. Or more likely, it wouldn’t have happened at all. By our own efforts, getting the Franklin Center reconnected with electricity had seen nothing but red tape. And that night at the quinceañera, I didn’t want to go at all. With all of the activity that weekend, I hadn’t seen much of Emily or the kids over the past 48 hours and they’d already come back from the party. But I knew I had to go for our neighbors’ sakes to share in those significant life moments with them. It was there, at the moment I least expected, where I experienced a profound gift. I had walked into another world. Part of it was the wonder of being found in a place of deep, cultural dislocation–a rare invitation to be a spectator of a beautiful, intimate, human liturgy. But I think the real gift was walking into a world where I was not in control. I never would have scripted the life that we live. And if I had, I would never have received this. I never would have gotten involved. I never would have stuck out my neck. I never would take on any project that I didn’t think I could handle. And because of it, I never would have experienced the miraculous, I’d never know that gift was more than reciprocal exchange, and I never would have experienced true grace.
I’ve always been taught that growing up meant dressing myself, being a leader, and going wherever I wanted. But Jesus overturns my logic again and again teaching me that growing up isn’t about leading. It’s about stretching out your hands and letting someone else guide you to places you don’t want to go. It’s then, and only then, will you experience the miraculous.
Let’s write new stories together this year.
We all seek out stories–people, businesses, ministries, and products–that resonate with us in some way. Sometimes those stories reassure us. They tell us we’re not alone, or crazy. Sometimes they disturb us and unsettle the status quo. Yet somehow we can’t walk away. Sometimes they bring a glimpse of the future we ache for. And we want to be a part of it. The ministry that we have here in Argentine is not our own, but it is the collective work, the desire, the imagination, and the frustration of hundreds of us. If there’s something that resonates with you in the stories that we are creating here, please consider a tax-deductible, year-end donation or becoming a regular contributor to this work. You can contribute online at youthfront.com/staffsupport. We need you!