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Highs and Lows: Journeying with Young People


At the end of July, John-Paul and I took four lads aged 16-17 to Wasdale in the Lake District situated in the breath-taking scenery underneath Scafell Pike. We made the long journey and then camped overnight before setting off early and walking up England's highest mountain. It was a completely alien experience for the young people; this was the furthest they'd been from Hull and the stunning 360o mountain view that welcomed them when they woke up noticeably affected them.

The journey, setting up camp, the evening when we ate takeaway on the beach at St Bees and even the camping went really well. Everyone loved it and at regular times I remember thinking how special these shared moments were (particularly at breakfast after finishing our Weetabix under a cloudless blue sky, after a tentative suggestion, I was taken aback as each lad in turn with sincerity raised their cup of apple juice as a toast with a short prayer thanking God for the day, view and his world - remarkable if you know these lads). However, the walk itself was a disaster (relationally, not from a safety angle - all boys back safe and sound!).

In part it was the heat, in part the walk was harder and longer than expected; but mainly, it was down to the fact that two of the lads are highly competitive, inconsiderate (at times) and don't like to be told what to do, even when it's their safety at stake. Their complaining ruined the walk, making it miserable for everyone and they were particularly rude to our volunteer guide. This was not a one-off, these lads have repeatedly done this and can be very difficult at our youth clubs.

As a team the experience forced us to look again at re-occurring difficult decisions: How many chances do we give young people? How many of their peers have to suffer before we say that's enough? How much do we invest in young people who appear never to change? Will they learn anything, if we keep giving them chances?

For us as a group of young people and adults it meant that we went from being fairly passive consumers, or at best selective participants, of what Greenbelt had on offer to active creators of a hospitable, engaging, encouraging, challenging space where people could feel God’s prompting on their lives. An incredible opportunity for us and the young people we took, and an immense privilege.

These questions cause much debate amongst the team and in youth work wider; every setting has a different approach. It's not even easy when reflecting theologically; which teaching do we follow: 7 times 77 chances for forgiveness, the shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the 1 or the wedding banquet where the King realises the invited guests are not deserving so he invites others instead and the message of not wasting pearls on pigs?

Chris tells a story of a young person who saw him in the street many years after attending our youth club. He told Chris that as a kid he'd been banned from all the clubs in the area, but Chris' was the only club that never did. He clearly valued the fact that there was someone who had never given up on him, so much so that he would go out of his way to stop him in the street and tell him. And so I'm led to the question: If we stop spending time with these lads, then who will continue having input into their lives?

Another story that guides me was Jesus' relationship with Judas. Judas was taking money and would finally horribly betray Jesus and yet, despite this knowledge, Jesus still spent three years with him in a close mentoring relationship. There were probably numerous more deserving people who could have taken his place and done great things as one of the chosen twelve. Even in the last moments before Jesus revealed what Judas would do, he washed his feet. Jesus continued to love and give chances, regardless of the outcome.

It can feel at times that young people are constantly testing our resolve, but we pray that this same love will be at the centre of all our relationships with young people: 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Love is patient … It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged … Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Rich