Yesterday was the first day of summer club for the kids in our neighborhood. So we spent our Memorial Day weekend preparing a new space for the kids and baby North to eventually share. Come Wednesday at 3:30, everything was ready to welcome the 20 or so kids that would enter our two-bedroom apartment.
In the couple minutes before opening our doors, I shared with our program leader, Miguel, and volunteers, Evangelina, Sarahi and Autumn, a quote by Maya Angelou. I asked the volunteers to remember this quote as they interacted with kids....
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou
― Maya Angelou
"So the most important thing we can do here today, is make the kids feel loved, okay?" I said. They all gave a sincere nod.
There were two things that stood out to me during our afternoon together.
The first was during our initial activity for the day. The kids were to fill out a questionnaire, giving their name, address, grade and then tell or draw a picture of what they would like to do for the summer. You know, give us some ideas. There was very little enthusiasm to fill out the paper in the first place, let alone give us any suggestions. So I told them they HAD to fill one out in order to come to the program. Suddenly, they were all asking for something to write with. So at least I knew they wanted to participate in whatever it was we would do.
As their little hands began to shove their papers into mine, I looked through their answers, or lack there of, one by one. They had nothing or surprisingly little to offer us.
So I realized something. I think the kids in our neighborhood are used to just sitting back and taking life as it comes crashing into them. They deal with so many heavy burdens, ones I never had to bare as a child. "Where will my next meal come from?" "How will I cope the next time Dad becomes violent?" "Will I ever be at peace with who I am?" "Will I ever belong anywhere?" These are the questions our kids face. My guess is that those kind of daily challenges are exhausting. The kids are not good decision makers. I pray we can help with this. I want to teach them that they have a voice and that their voice matters, to God, to me and Ian and to those who care about them. I want to inspire them to THINK for themselves, to know what they want and pursue it! This is going to take some work, and I believe over many years.
The second was during story time. We finally got the kids settled down and Miguel began with a visual demonstration. He asked for a volunteer. Willing hands flew up in the air. Davey was selected and Miguel asked him to squeeze ALL the toothpaste out of a brand new tube on a piece of brown paper. Of course this looked incredibly fun, so Miguel quickly had a captive audience, as all the kids gathered around to watch. When he was done, Miguel said "Okay Great! Now, put it ALL back in there." Davey was dumbfounded. He re-positioned his hands many times, thinking, scheming as the kids shouted out suggestions. Miguel patiently listened for a good while as they tried to figure it out. Finally, after a couple attempts to redeem the flattened toothpaste tube, they gave up. Miguel explained that our words are like that toothpaste, once they are out, we can't take them back. "Our words can be used for good or bad and God has a lot to say about that in the Bible", Miguel stated. He shared this verse:
"Don't use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them." Ephesians 4:29
It was then time to pray before we served the kids a hot meal of chicken, rice and corn, prepared in a large 30 cup rice cooker. I asked the kids to be quite and respectful because we were talking to God.
A eager hand frantically shot up in the air and waved around. The middle school girl said, " Ruthie, I really have to tell you something and it CAN'T wait." I said, "Okay, what is it?" She said, "I don't believe in God." A little startled, I told her that was okay, that she was welcome to come even if she didn't believe in God. Then I asked her if she could still be respectful as we prayed even if she didn't want to join in. She agreed.
She stayed to help clean, and I will add, did a great job! She gave me a hug as she left with a smile. I think we succeeded in making her feel loved and welcomed, even after her open confession.
This was the second moment of the afternoon that stuck out to me, even hours after the kids left. Why did she feel such a strong need to tell me that? I am not sure. But I do know, for some reason she was confronted by that very important question: "Do I believe in God or not?" I hope that our presence in this neighborhood will confront many of our neighbors in this same way. I am excited that she is thinking. I pray we can be a consistent light and example of God's love in her life. God knows her heart. He loves her desperately. And that is what we have to do, love her, continue in the work of showing and sharing what God has to offer her. We know from experience that God's relentless love is hard to resist for long!