Northwest Neighbors has taken enough trips with youth that we’ve learned to expect God to show up in the most unexpected places. However, it was the last thing on our minds that a football game would become the most defining moment of our time at camp.
The Northwest Neighbors youth decided that this year, they were going to grab camp by the horns, step out of their comfort zones, and take in as much as camp had to offer. Towards those efforts, they put together a team to join the flag football tournament. Games were spread out over two days, double-elimination style. In the first game of the tournament, the youth had a fantastic time. They played (and won against) a team that was competitive yet gracious, and were able to learn how to begin playing as a team, supporting one another on and off the field, and taking pride in their play and their attitudes.
In the second game, however, our anticipated trajectory for the weekend took a sharp turn. As soon as our youth stepped on the field, the other team began to viciously trash talk them. we immediately pulled our team aside and challenged them to take the high road, to stay above resorting to insults, and to let their play do the talking for them. However, as the game progressed, the trash talking disintegrated into cursing and personal insults, including threats of bodily injury to not only players on the field, but also to our youth cheering on the sidelines, and berating of youth on both sides for their bad play. While this behavior would have been troubling enough coming from youth, the majority came from chaperones and staff on the opposing team.
Though the game felt like it was dissolving into chaos, our youth could not have made us prouder. They kept their heads on straight, paid attention only to our staff’s instructions, and played lights out against a team that was on average a foot taller and mostly high school varsity football players. The team took the game into overtime, only losing on a great kick-off return by the other team. The other team deeply rubbed the win in our youth’s faces, even physically running over multiple of our youth in their desire to celebrate.
As staff watching this unfold, we were intensely emotional - horrified, angry, deeply concerned, and proud all at once. We quickly ushered our team off the field and back to our cabins, as a number of our youth were physically restraining themselves and each other from getting into fights. In our conversation with the youth, we were very clear to express our pride in them for handling themselves with maturity and control, as well as communicate that adults must and should be held to higher standards. Our youth were wronged and sinned against, and their pain was justified. We needed our youth to know that in the ways they felt helpless and angry, we were their allies and advocates and would do everything we could to set things right. Yet even in their righteous anger, we challenged them to turn the other cheek, to forgive, to bring their pain and anger to God, and to not fall into sin themselves.
As the day and weekend progressed, we continued to stay in conversation with our youth. We offered our group as a safe place to express anger and frustration, yet wanted to be clear that anger and frustration was not the end goal. Our staff spoke with the camp staff to address the situation (as a side note, they were wonderfully responsive), and made it clear to our students that we were taking the situation very seriously and trying to address things with adults in charge. We gathered later that night to pray as a group, and in a way that only the Holy Spirit can work, our slightly hodgepodge group of youth (3 different Bible studies that do not interact regularly) became a family. Through their shared experience and shared pain, the group learned to love and support one another, and as one youth prayed: “Thank you for these friends…well, they’re basically family.” And while the pain didn’t go away, nor did the youth ever receive an apology, it was clear that our youth were able to come out of a horribly unfair and hurtful situation with deeper respect, love, and understanding of themselves, each other, and God.
For the staff, we could not have been more encouraged by what we witnessed of our youth this weekend. First and foremost, we were blown away by the level of trust our youth had in us as their leaders. For urban youth who are used to being let down, used to solving their own problems, they trusted us to be their advocates, to understand and feel their pain, and to help them engage the situation in a better way than with their fists. We felt so personally affirmed that these youth trust our love for them.
And beyond that, we saw a fire lit in our youth to “be better.” Many of them have been wrestling through Bible studies this year with who God is, but also who He calls us to become and what it means to sacrifice for the Kingdom. We could see the youth wrestling with how following Jesus goes against their nature and what their families and friends may teach them. They were given a very difficult situation that pressed them into making hard decisions, and they went through a real process of figuring out what Jesus actually means to them. One youth even expressed her guilt that the way she had vented about the situation was wrong and that she was thinking negative thoughts and wanted to figure out how to stop. Talk about self-awareness and a desire to make Jesus Lord in her life.
At the end of the trip, one of the youth came up to us and said, “You know what’s funny…that group’s kids have actually started being really nice towards us – I think we sort of made friends with some of them.” We asked what he thought would have happened if they had fought back, and he said, “We would’ve been kicked out of camp, but I also don’t think we could have ever become friends.” In his simple reflection, he expressed following Jesus in a nutshell – to be a different people, to respond with love and forgiveness instead of retribution and anger, to love and support one another in our pain and our struggles, and to encourage each other to seek Jesus in any situation. Praise Jesus that He turned what could have been a devastating, violent situation into one where our youth experienced the Kingdom of God.