Sometimes I feel like I can look at someone’s face and read a story. That’s probably a personality disorder yet to be diagnosed, but really I do.
Walking by some folks on the street where I live in San Francisco, I read a tale of loss, addiction, and loneliness. Under cracked skin, dirty clothes, and tattoos there lives a soul who ran away from his problems only to step on the trap of heroine and methamphetamines.
Other faces bear different stories. Make up and designer clothing can disguise a tired woman who is desperately chasing a dream while presently discovering its shallow shell. Away from family and most friends who have known her well, she spends her time with friends form work and dates online. In slower moments, she thinks about checking in on her aging parents in the South but moves the event in her calendar app to a different week.
In the lives of students who are part of my church, City Church San Francisco, I don’t have to lean on an impression or imagine a narrative. I get to hear the stories firsthand. As a youth pastor, I have the privilege of tuning in to the lives and experiences of students in junior high and high school. What strikes me most is the overwhelming nature of modern life and the insecurities it imbues within adolescents.
Just recently I was speaking during a Sunday morning talk on the Christian concept of forgiveness. I was trying to communicate how God’s forgiveness of our bad actions is connected to how we are called to forgive others when they do us wrong. I felt like students were getting it. One student, who was clearly hearing me, piped in:
“I know we’re supposed to love our enemies and forgive people, but it’s just really hard when they bully me.”
At that point, I knew we were going deeper. We were descending into the real world of a 12 year old entering seventh grade. We were descending into the world of a student who encounters everyday dangers and quiet pain.
It’s easy to read or even hear about another person’s pain and cry a little, maybe think to our selves yeah, that’s really rough. And it is. Suicide statistics reinforce the often dark reality of teenage life.* It is telling that suicide rates are climbing swiftly among 10-14 year old girls.
There is a long conversation to be had about antidepressants, mental health, body image, and societal expectations. I believe each of these as well as a host of other factors play a part in finding a solution.
Amidst the various support systems, my line of work emphasizes spiritual health as the focal point. Youth pastors are part of a large community that seeks the good of people in adolescence, a critical stage in human development. I’ve referred young people to therapists, I’ve talked to parents, I’ve gotten to know the stories of many, and this is one thing I have learned:
Adolescents need a safe and sacred community.
And I cannot imagine a better community than the community that holds Jesus in high regard. Yes, I believe the church is the place to experience deep community in the journey of faith and friendship with God.
The Back to School Retreat this weekend provided a meaningful way to experience safe and sacred space. Having received feedback from numerous parents, students who came to Point Reyes experienced a safe and sacred community. And this safe, sacred community is a place to experience God, to ask questions, to look deeper into the things God and into the life and ministry of Jesus, God’s Son.
Sometimes, for adolescents, this looks like reflective questions and dialogue. I chatted for most of an hour during our 6 mile hike on Saturday with a student who was fleshing out the meaning of following Jesus. That evening, I shared some fairly heavy stuff during our campfire about my faith journey and how, a number of years ago, I experienced the loss of a friend to suicide. One young man sat and stared at the campfire for 20 minutes after that talk. I can only imagine he was contemplating things in his life, wondering and debating with God about matters of the heart.
Yes, young people express faith in any number of ways. Brain development and rapidly increasing cognizance certainly factors in to how students process their spirituality. But being in safe, sacred space is essential in discovering the mystery of God and moving forward in faith.