I am a Youth Worker, once again. But this time and like every time, it's different and the same. After years and years of guiding teens of liberal families to develop moral, ethical and spiritual voice, relationship and action, I took a break. It was not for long even though I knew I needed to learn more before I attempted this work again.
In October of 2015, I walked into a Center for Refugee Services in my community and offered myself as an interfaith, minister who was capable and interested in supporting teens in developing leadership skills. I was greeted openly and warmly by the Director, Natasha. The next week, the Director introduced me to the Youth Coordinator, Becky. As a way to gauge interest, the next week I began spending time in the after school space meeting and chatting with the teens who congregated there to use computers or to be coached through their homework. I was greeted openly and warmly by the teens and was swiftly introduced to over a dozen who came to know me as the Leadership Circle Lady, Anna.
By mid-November, the New American Center Teen Leadership Circle had was a Thing. Already, this group of teens was different than any other I had encountered. While they came from many different lands, with an array of stories, wearing differing fashion, and claiming inherited faith, as a whole they had a few profound elements in common:
...their way of being in committed, caring community
...their constantly expressed gratitude and respect for the adult guides around them
...their initiative to be there and openness to new experiences
This is not to say we didn't have some pretty typical, loving tussles -- eating habits, cellphone use, and group think that was sometimes less than the sum of the parts. These challenges initiated me into a familiar relationship of love, nagging and respect. It was not long before they trusted me to challenge them to do better for themselves, each other, and the worlds in which they lived.
Some of the themes in the first month of weekly NACTLCs (New American Center Teen Leadership Circles) were:
By and by, attendance varied depending on school schedules, weather, and holidays. To date, 24 teens have been occasional to frequent members of the Circle, with two middle schoolers regularly trying to slip into the mix. (I try to be stern in the "no," but their persistence is impressive.)
By February, two key events happened:
First, I had planned for a February vacation-week leadership days for the NAC Teen Leadership Circle. Two of my wise and creative comadres from El Paso, Texas joined us group as guest leaders. They brought their lived experience of walking with others that comes from living on the border. It was fun, formative, and fantastic.
Second, a dear friend and colleague in faith, Sally, hosted a mid-winter gathering of families who gather yearly for a week of summer church camp. The teens present asked if I would talk to them about what I was doing in my Community with teens. I did so and before I thought I had finished, one of them asked if they could come in April. Others nodded. I agreed.
Throughout March, the NAC Teens and I talked about the guests who would be visiting us in April. They were not visibly excited and seemed nervous. Perhaps the thought of it -- that teens from other communities might want to come and spend time with them learning cross-cultural leadership skills -- was too abstract or too soon. And besides, this was not their idea. Other obstacles surfaced like deciding on the actual dates for this with our out-of-town friends, guiding the NAC teens to engage in this new idea, and justifying to their families the need for commitment in the face of work schedules and family responsibilities. And last but not least, at all, was trying to find a local organization willing to let our group sleep on a floor for two nights. At last, we were given the keys to a kingdom -- a large gymnasium that would double as our sleeping quarters and playground.
Fast forward to one week before this Friendship Trip. The plan was not exactly coming together for the NAC teens. In a sincere but exasperated state, I asked the group,
"who here has been a stranger in a new land and experienced generosity and hospitality?"
We shared stories.
These teens have not always been treated nicely at all. Still, they shared the best of the best stories of kindness of being welcomed as a stranger in this country, and other countries. Being the stranger was an identity many were born in to. When the stories died down and before diving into boxes of pizza, I asked,
"Well, it's your turn. Are you up for it?"
"Yes, yes, YES!" they chanted.
They sketched out a schedule with time blocks that would allow them to manage their responsibilities while participating in group activities. My key support and lifeline in all of this -- the Becky, the Youth Coordinator -- and I upped the ante and devised a point system that motivate their learning in planning, showing up on time, and participating fully. (After all, teens sometimes sleep late, get distracted or allow their teenagerness to interrupt their listening.)
This video captures four days and two nights of cross-cultural fun and sincerity. I invite you to notice all the ways that this one group of new friends came together with ease and excitement. Such joy is not hard and it is not easy because of the ways our lives and communities are separated. When we go out of our usual way to discover what we have in common, we awaken to really good feelings, new perspectives and visionary possibilities.
In the end, as in the beginning, it begins with earnest desire to connect with another. I am grateful for the hospitality of strangers who invite me into their community.
Many thanks for family, friends, and believing bystanders who have provided sustenance of many kinds on many levels. May your generosity be returned multi-fold.