I joined FUMC when I was in college, which was twenty years ago. I spent my first few years as a member by attending church most Sundays and occasionally dipping my toe into one-time events or ministries. During these first years of my church membership, I remember hearing a lot about the youth group: car washes, Super Bowl food drives, pecan sales, Mardi Gras balls, ski trips, Bible studies, volunteering, and much more.
Fast forward several years when the church was raising money to build the youth building. I remember the passion with which these leaders spoke about the need for larger facilities, and while I was amazed at the vision and the scope of these plans, I thought, “Is this really needed? A youth building that is several stories tall? A half-court basketball court? A pizza kitchen? Is this what it takes these days to get kids to come to church?” Yet something kept pulling at me, and I realized that my young children would someday take part in this; and I found myself saying “yes” to make a financial commitment to help realize this dream. When ground was first broken for this building and my children stood with me at the edge of the construction site wearing their now-outgrown yellow shirts bearing the slogan “The Future is Now,” little did I realize how much that space and the people in it would come to mean to our family.
Fast forward another few years- and my firstborn started attending youth functions. He liked it, but I was intimidated by the sheer size and force of “the youth group.” I watched from a distance, and occasionally signed up to help drive to an event or bring donuts. I was still feeling my way around.
“I began to see the introverts, the social butterflies, those who made connections, who worked tirelessly, who needed some extra grace, and often it was me.”
As I grew more comfortable as a youth parent volunteer, I said “yes” to a few more things. Sure, I’ll work the check-in table at Mardi Gras Ball. Yes, I’ll host a pool party. Those things were meaningful, but didn’t require too much thought or time commitment. One and done. Shortly after some of these events Kale Wetekkam, our youth director, called and left a message asking if I would chaperone the Mystery Mission Trip. My initial reaction was “Me? I’m a teacher, we live for summer, and I don’t like the “mystery” aspect of this. You mean chaperones don’t know where we’re going either? Hmm.” This one took a little more time, but I said yes. Truth be told, I thought, “I’ll really build up some good brownie points with this one, and I won’t need to help out again for a while.” Just before we loaded the bus, the youth, chaperones, and parents circled up for prayer. As our prayer circle disbanded several parents said, “Thank you,” or “You’re so brave.” I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
The bus broke down a few hours into our trip−in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. A few of the kids asked some questions about the plan but none seemed overly concerned when we ended up stranded there for several hours. George Ragsdale, the Executive Director of Youth, Children and Missions, told me that this would end up being a memorable experience and is part of the fun of a youth trip. That is when I began to see God’s grace at work. We ordered pizza which was delivered to the parking lot, and bought drinks from a nearby dollar store. These kids were having fun in spite of the circumstances!
I have many other wonderful memories of this trip: evening worship, singing songs, hearing testimony from youth leaders, kids working without complaint to paint decking in the hot July sun, and giving yet another piggyback ride to one of the children who came to the youth-led Vacation Bible School. Some of the “do-gooder” feelings began to fall away−this was real. I began to see the introverts, the social butterflies, those who made connections, who worked tirelessly, who needed some extra grace, and often it was me.
The next opportunity to say “yes” came when I was approached to help teach the 6th grade confirmation classes. What a blessing it has been to watch these young people, who are so full of enthusiasm, energy, and questions, gain a deeper understanding of their faith and claim it as their own.
The leaders of the youth department make it look easy when it fact it is a well-run machine that involves a lot of behind the scenes work and countless volunteer hours. Yes, there is often great food, cool t-shirts, confetti, and mystery destination trips. This may be the initial draw, but for most of the youth they continue to come back to Bible studies, Sunday School, and outreach opportunities because they feel welcomed and that they are a part of this amazing group.
The youth group recently held their 62nd Mardi Gras Ball which welcomed over 300 middle and high schoolers. Less than 48 hours after the ball, twenty-five of these youth were confirmed as members of our church (pictured below.) As these young confirmands kneeled at the chancel rail in the sanctuary, we adult leaders laid our hands on them in blessing. I noticed that several of them still had the faded outline of their check-in number from the ball written on their hand. Mardi Gras Balls and confirmation? Yes, they must go together. As I laid my hand on my own daughter’s shoulder, I recalled the promises made at her baptism at the same rail 11 years ago, saying, “Yes, we will bring her up in the church and send her to confirmation classes.”
I admit that sometimes I’m a slow learner, but I’ve recently realized that I’ve been saying “yes” for years. Each seemingly small or reluctant “yes” prepared me for the next opportunity. Each experience gave me the courage to answer the call to bigger things (requiring more commitment) that were previously out of my comfort zone. I have also realized how much grace and love God has brought me along the way, and I couldn’t be more grateful.