We met her on a beautiful Sunday in May. I remember, because she was May, dressed in warm and colorful spring colors, a shining smile, and young and full of promise, like the spring. She came to help us with our smallest and youngest of church school students who were beginning to paint our annual poster, “Kids as Peacemakers.” This large endeavor was a challenge, as all ages of church school participated. How to find a part for each group to make their mark, and to stay within our theme for the year, was our goal.
“Can I help?” she asked us, as we tried to mobilize the eager children. We looked up, Peg and I, and said in unison, “Yes!” She jumped right in, laughing with the little ones, helping them draw and paint, adjusting their smocks as needed, the smile never leaving her face. As we finished up, we thought we must reach out to her in the summer and see if she’ll help with church school in the fall.
We did not find her that summer. We were caught up in enjoying our summer in New England, taking in every warm, sunny Sunday with our families to drink in the short season. Attending church and finding teachers for the fall was far from the top of our list. As the summer drew to a close, Peg and I reconnected and wondered how to find her.
Summer turned into early fall, and on a Friday night I coaxed my son to try out youth group, telling him about the activities in which he’d be involved, how serving others is not only good for those who receive, but makes us feel good, too. After a few hours, I entered the church hall to retrieve him. As I entered, I heard laughter. Although familiar, I couldn’t quite place it, as my son’s deep voice was weaved within it. As I walked closer, I realized it was the young woman whom I’d met last spring, now engaging our most reluctant age group, the high school students. “You’re here, and helping! We were hoping to get you to teach, but someone else recruited you for this group!” “Yes, ” she said. As we left, my son commented, “She’s okay,” which I knew, meant that he approved.
The year became busy, as she absorbed herself fully into the mission of the youth group as the new leader, really enjoying herself, as she was not much older. It was full of retreats and services from Staten Island to South Dartmouth to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Also included were youth group meetings and fundraising and talks with the new beloved youth group leader, who became a big sister, friend and confidante. She listened with patience, not judging, but sharing some of her own experiences and mistakes and lessons learned. And they listened equally, boys and girls, who also shared their secrets, their fears, their insecurities, and the pressures teens face. She always told them they could do anything, and they had to have confidence. They told her she was good and kind, but when they did this, she remained quiet and thoughtful, accepting their compliments, but questioning herself. They looked forward to these talks.
They prayed for others not so fortunate. They became aware of others who lived differently, with pain and poverty and loss. Their leader helped mold and develop them, instilled confidence when necessary, broke the shell. She did this as parents do, but unlike parents, she always had a captive audience. She was a powerful and spiritual force for them, lighthearted and fun, but serious when necessary. They created a a special bond, this group of teens comprising females and males, freshmen and seniors, some quiet and others gregarious, accomplished musicians and medaled athletes, hyper-focused and struggling to pay attention, but all part of their own community, their own team. They were a team at its most performing stage – this wonderful place where successes are many, and nothing can break them. It served them well, because they kept coming, these teens who could choose to do so many other things on a Friday night, a long weekend, or a school vacation week. They didn’t let her down; nor did she let them down.
After Hurricane Sandy, they asked if they could go to Staten Island, to do something, anything to help anyone. Their minister researched and found a service opportunity. The youth group, under the leadership of the minister, parent chaperones and their young youth group leader drove to Staten Island. They prepared quickly, as if for an emergency, packing their oldest and warmest clothing, gloves, hats, extra socks and shoes, and masks.
They arrived at what was once a home with memories and love and family, home to a wife, mother and grandmother who had lost everything. She wanted some of her memories to hold on to, could they help her? They moved in, with force and determination. Upon entering the house they encountered the raw feeling that is the middle of December, but they were inside and there was no heat, only dampness and the visible presence of mold and its accompanying odor. They were told to dispose of all of their clothes after their work was done. This was serious; the masks would be necessary.
Inside, they found art work, special drawings that said, “Grandma, I love you,” and they took them from the refrigerator. They found a few photos of smiling children and adults, still in frames that could be cleaned and delivered to the woman waiting patiently outside. And, in her bedroom, they searched for something else. The young leader and students, searched endlessly for something very small, yet very special, a symbol of the bond this woman made years ago before moving into this house, a lasting bond. They searched for something that connected her uncertain future with her past, something that could make her remember, always. Deep down, in her dresser, amidst rubble and debris, they found it. They went outside covered in dirt and dust, but with big smiles, as they were proud of their accomplishment. And when they presented the elderly woman with this special item, her joy was worth their labor in the cold, wet, moldy house that was once a home. This everlasting item, a band of gold, was her wedding ring. Their mission was a success.
And after the service trip, their young leader gathered them and brought them to the altar where they shared their stories of service and team work, with their young leader beside them. The confident shared eagerly, and the less confident had her by their side, facing a congregation of people who wanted to hear what this group had done, how they lived the mission of the church. They told the story of the their findings, and how they were able to make one person happy, and that was enough, because they gave her the most important thing: love.
In early spring they headed to the White Mountains for a long hike, back packs on bodies, warm clothing, extra gloves and socks, hats and mittens. This was fresh, cold healthy air, not damp and moldy, but with its own challenges. April in New Hampshire says spring on the calendar, but the temperatures are not spring-like. The hike was a mix of cold, wet and icy terrain, with muddy and slippery areas, icy streams to cross, up and down, then leveling off. But, something changed here. The youth who were strong, able, long-legged and full of energy, became the leaders. They explored, tried out and tested, and then they guided their young leader, who was not a hiker. They came upon a wide stream, flowing with cold, icy water. The young leaders found a large tree trunk and lifted it, placing it gingerly across the stream. They encouraged her to try it out. They held on to her as she cautiously made her way, persuading her and cheering her on, some already across, others at her side as she began. It was their turn to build confidence and listen and empathize, to stand beside her and reaffirm that she could do this, and that no matter how tired, wet and cold she felt, she would succeed; they had her back. These were the things she had told them. It felt good to give back.
They continued to be strong, taking on trail blazing and white washing a barn later that spring, when the wind was a warm breeze on their back, not cold and raw. This mission was an environmental one, to clean a trail overridden with weeds, so that people could freely enjoy the beauty the environment offers. The group worked hard and long in the hot sun of June. Again, she helped them, laughing and coaxing them and making the strenuous work enjoyable. They camped on the floor of a nearby church, and gathered in the evening to share stories with their youth leader. Again, she provided direction and support. And they listened, and slept well, like younger children after listening to a bedtime story. Only for them it was sleep from hard work and real fatigue and affirmation that they were okay. They were satisfied after their talk.
Summer came and as always, things slowed down for church and youth group. Early into the next fall, the youth group leader made an announcement. She had to leave her duties, she told us. She had to go away for awhile. We listened attentively with shock and sadness, knowing what she must address, but also with a bit of selfishness and how it impacted us, and our children who had benefited so much from her leadership. And we prayed for her. She told the youth group everything. And they too, listened to their leader who didn’t want to leave, but must. They prayed, hugged and cried. “It will never be the same, they said, days and weeks later, not without her.” I wondered silently, if they were right.
Of course it wasn’t the same, but the youth group remained intact, and what had been instilled in them, stayed. They wrote letters to her that told stories of their activities, and sent cards and pictures. She wrote with some optimism, but requested continued prayers. They continued their service trips under new leadership to the small town of Glendora, Mississippi. They served and helped other young people who had so little in comparison to what they had. They appreciated their parents, their minister, their friends, their youth leaders, their town of Ipswich and their homes. They became committed to helping this small town in Mississippi, so much that they went back the next June, as soon as school ended. They missed her, but continued with their own mission, continuing to serve in her absence. Their “talks” were different, too, but she was a part of them, as they always finished with a prayer for her.
And then, on a beautiful weekend In October, she came to church. Some of the youth, now in college and home for the holiday weekend, stood and greeted her with hugs and laughter as she entered the sanctuary. These tall, young men, who were boys when she left them, now bent down to hug her. There in the middle of autumn, she wore the vivid colors of spring, and that same illuminating smile. Yes, it was spring for her, a time of renewal and growth, and opportunities to serve again. We were happy and grateful for this homecoming.