The smell of Central American coffee was rich in the air. The roar of the blenders making smoothies filled the small coffee shop. High school students were slowly gathering in for their Thursday night ritual of coffee, cookies, smoothies, and Jesus. Andrew had been working as the youth minister at a small mainline Protestant church for a number of years. This small group of high school students had just started meeting at a local coffee shop recently. The owners of the shop had graciously allowed Andrew’s students to meet in the back of the coffee shop where sofas had been set up.
The high school students were scattered on the sofas, some were on the floor, and others had pulled chairs over. Then, Mike walked in. Mike was a freshman in high school. Middle school had not been good to him. He had been picked on, teased, bullied, beat up, face stuffed in lockers. You name it, it most likely happened to Mike. Mike was a tall and skinny guy, but he walked slummed over as if an old man beaten down by age. He found a space on one of the sofas, and slouched down into the sofa with his long legs extending higher into the air than his head.
Mike was an outcast. You could see it written on his face. He rarely spoke up and shared personal stories. When he did speak up, he would make comments that showed how hard he was trying to “fit in”. The rules that he had learned to play by at school, he applied everywhere else, including youth group.
On this Thursday night at the local coffee shop, a senior shared a personal story that moved Mike. As the senior finished his story, Andrew allowed a few moments of silence for personal reflection before asking anyone else to share or for their thoughts. Mike, taking a few moments to gather his words as he spoke, began to share a very personal episode in his life that has made it very difficult for him to forgive not just the friend in his story, but anybody. As Mike shared his story, you could hear the pain in his voice. The other students listened intently, and once Mike was finished, they too began sharing compassionate stories from their own lives that were similar to his.
The group took this one socially outcasted individual into its arms to nurture and console.
Not only did Mike continue to attend this mainline Protestant church, but his family would eventually begin attending and would join. Mike had found a place where he was not only welcomed, but a place where he felt he belonged.
Whenever I lead workshops on youth ministry, I always talk about the invisible line drawn in churches. You know that line. The line that marks what rooms adolescents can or cannot use. The line that marks how adolescents should or should not act in church. The line that seems to never be discussed, but is clearly there and used to praise (or not) a youth minister/leader. I led a workshop in one church and I was given a classroom clearly set up for adults on a regular basis. I explained to the Christian Educator at this church that I liked to use the youth room, or whatever space was used for ministry with adolescents. The Christian Educator had a deer-caught-in-head-lights look for a few seconds, and then she led me to the youth room.
I knew what to expect. A room with various used sofas and chairs, posters scattered over the brightly colored painted walls. What I didn’t expect was the trek I would have to take to get there. The Christian Educator led me to the end of the hallway, through a heavy door (explaining that we were now entering the “old building”), down a long, dark hallway, through another heavy door and straight into a room with the longed for couches and painted walls.
For so long our churches have drawn an invisible line between “us” and “them”, the “adults” and the “youth”. Dean Borgman writes, “We often fail when we try to drag them into our world, teach them our values, and share our faith in our cultural way. It is we who must make a radical jump across class or culture to enter another world.”
Jesus himself was the model of this concept. Jesus crossed over the invisible social line and entered into the world of those whom he wanted to reach. He sat down and had lunch with the tax collector. Despite his disciples’ cries, he allowed the little children to come to him. He talked and shared the Way with the Samaritan woman at the well. He entered their world; he did not drag them into his. By entering their world on their grounds, on their terms, he was able to hear their stories, tell his story, and show them the Way.
We can do the same by having a ministry to youth that says, “I care – I love.” In the United States alone, one in five youth have thought about suicide. Some have even gone so far as making the plans. In moments of grief, distress, and chaos in their lives, instead of searching for the best words of comfort, we could just simply listen. We should, as Borgman says, “encourage the telling of stories, the healing of lives, and promotion of growth.”
 Borgman, Dean, Hear My Story: Understanding the Cries of Troubled Youth (Peaboy, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 2003) 410.
 Borgman, 410.