Messy Kids

Rafael and Tristan were the first of a large wave of youth from Gary Job Corp to join our fellowship in San Marcos. The two sat side-by side in the very front, worshipping their hearts out and soaking in the Word of God. They became real “regulars.” This enthusiastic pair invited many others from Gary Job Corp to church. It wasn’t long before we had a large handful of these forlorn youngsters. Transportation was the biggest challenge. They couldn’t always get a ride. If they could, they’d have to miss breakfast (a huge sacrifice for such deprived souls). So we purchased an eleven passenger Chevy van. Initially, it was either my wife or I who went out to fetch the kids from Job Corp. Then others got involved in our “shuttle” ministry. Typically, it took three trips to get this wild bunch to church. We also had breakfast waiting for them when they arrived.

As much as I hate to say, some didn’t share my passion for these kids. It was no secret that Job Corp was a haven for hell raisers. I confess, not all proved to be charm school graduates. More than a few did have checkered pasts. And some were rougher around the edges than others. Put simply, they looked and behaved like street kids generally do. But, frankly, I was glad they were coming to church. I always did have a bleeding heart for disadvantaged youth. I was one myself.

I was raised by my mother in the suburbs of Los Angeles. My older brother, Rick, and I were always up to mischief. I suppose we had too much time on our hands and not enough supervision with Mom working as much as she did. My mouth would also get me into trouble. I can’t even count the times I got smacked by someone trying to be my parent. I’d just glare at them as if I were bulletproof, then run home and cry like a big sissy. Rick was much bolder. He’d stand up to anyone.

Once, after a leisurely day of shoplifting, Rick almost clobbered a man twice his size. He was eleven or twelve at the time. I suppose I was the one to start the commotion. We were walking alongside the wall of this fellow’s house when his dog barked at us. Well, being the mouthy kid I was, I decided to snap back. Before long, the dog and I were in a full-blown barking match. That’s when his owner came out screaming and cussing. We screamed and cussed right back. Infuriated, this large man hopped the wall, threatening to kick our “backsides.” Well, threatening my brother is like spitting in the wind. It’s gonna come right back at you even harder. Rick ran to the yard across the street, pulled up a ‘For Sale’ sign, then came back swinging like a ninja on steroids. “You want to kick my butt?” he hollered. Either the man lost his courage, or he didn’t want to be seen tangling with some puny kid. Whichever the case, he quickly  jumped back over the wall. Like his dog, his bark was bigger than his bite.

Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of grown-up types that took an interest in Rick or me. We were nothing more than undesirable street kids. Because of this, we resented authority figures, a sentiment that was usually returned. Yet, as hard as we were on the outside, our hearts weren’t far from reach. We were crying out to be loved. When our parents divorced and Dad left, it rocked our world. Yes, we acted out in anger. As a result, both teachers and preachers alike wrote us off. Also, neighborhood parents protected their poor impressionable children from our evil influence.

It was those precious few adults that reached out to us that made the difference. It haunts me to think of where I might have ended up had there not been some a ray of light piercing through my dark and hardened heart.

Naturally, my upbringing causes me to identify with troubled teens. I understand them. And God has clearly shown me that they are worth investing in. I had the privilege of serving in youth ministry for many years and have seen the Lord do miracles in the lives of the young and dejected. They need Jesus to find our purpose in lives. They need older men and women to point them the way. They need to see in us the heart of Jesus who saves the lost, heals the sick and gives sight to the blind.

Ministering to disadvantaged youth is no easy task. Many come with loads of baggage and nasty habits. Their hormones pop like popcorn on a hot griddle. They are prone to make bad choices as a result. Some may never appreciate the investment you make in their lives. They may even turn on you. It’s no different than ministering to prisoners or to the homeless. You’re dealing with folks who are lost or blind or sick. It’s messy. It’s impossible to pour out your heart without it getting ripped out a time or two.

I was full aware of the risks when we received the Gary kids into our small fellowship. This wasn’t my first rodeo. There would be headaches and heartbreaks. Some of these kids would lose their way (or never find it). In spite of these realities, my hopes were high. I was excited about the opportunity to reach out to them. Most all of us were. And together we rolled out the red carpet for the youth of Gary Job Corp – even if it meant saving only one out of ninety-nine.

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