Written by Keith Blair
I am washing my sweater for what seems like the third time this week.
When I first got this sweater eight months ago, to commemorate my graduation from Acadia Divinity College’s Master of Divinity program, it represented a fresh start. A new beginning. A realm of opportunities that would allow me to trust in God’s leading more than I ever had in my life.
At this point, I have worn it to a multitude of social gatherings, youth events, camps, back and forth from my hometown of Toronto, Ont., to my new home Kentville, N. S., where I have served as the Baptist church’s part-time youth pastor for the last three years. This sweater has indeed seen its fair share of stretches, stains, and odours.
To me, the endurance of my grad sweater throughout months of ongoing ministry seems a small price to pay for the establishment of connections, bridges between the church and a small rural town filled with people who seem desperate for some kind of hope.
I take a whiff of the stench coming from my sweater, and sigh in mock frustration. Cigarette smoke is a notoriously difficult smell to remove from any clothing, let alone my favourite grad sweater. Yes, the Word instructs us to see our bodies as a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and as such, I would not think that cigarette smoke would be commonly found on any cleric’s garments.
However, this has been the cost of discipleship in this town. I am not a smoker, but to me, the rancid stench serves as a reminder of the mission of our church, which is, in part, to reach out into a hurting world with the love and grace of Christ.
The person responsible for my foul-smelling garments this time is a young man, no older than fourteen, who has unfortunately spent most of his young life in trouble with the law. He has lived with almost every developmental disorder that one can think of and has suffered unspeakable traumas in his past. He began his journey of substance abuse at the age of eight and cannot seem to go more than a few hours without a nicotine fix.
When I first met MH two summers ago, many caregivers — teachers, law enforcers, even social workers — seemed ready to write off this young man as another casualty of Kentville’s crippled society. One day, however, he managed to find his way to our youth group, and the rest, as they say, is history.
KB: When did you first start attending our youth group, and why?
MH: The summer you guys started showing movies, almost two years ago. My friend invited me.
KB: What made you want to come back?
MH: I don’t know. It was fun, and I liked the people there. You were cool to hang out with, too.
KB: What has your experience been like in youth group so far?
MH: It’s been fun! We play games, and hang out, and learn about God, and stuff.
KB: And what do you think about some of the things you’ve learned so far?
MH: It’s cool. I mostly still come for the fun, but I know that God is good!
KB: Tell me a little bit about God. How close do you feel to Him right now?
MH: I feel like I’ve grown closer to Him since I started coming to youth group. There’s a lot I don’t get, but I want to know more.
KB: You’ve come to church on Sunday morning on occasion, too! What’s that been like, and how different is it from youth group?
MH: It’s a lot different. I feel like people keep looking at me, but I get to hang out with you, at least!
KB: Do you still see yourself going to church in five years?
MH: Yeah. As long as my friends are still going, too.
KB: And what if they aren’t?
MH: I don’t know. Maybe?
KB: I hope you’ll still go. There are people there who have really gotten to like you, I promise!
KB: So what do you think God is doing in your life right now?
MH: I don’t know. (pause)
KB: Okay. If you could ask Him for one thing right now, what would it be?
MH: That he could help me get through school, and help my friend’s dad, who has cancer right now.
KB: Of course. Can we pray for that right now?
In the two years since MH first came to our group, we have heard story after story in our community of how much he has changed for the better. While he is still apprehensive towards law enforcement officers due to past experience, his rapport with the local police department has significantly improved. MH still smokes, he still gets restless after sitting still for more than 20 minutes, he still occasionally disregards many authority figures in his life (including myself), and he still challenges the status quo of our Sunday morning worship service.
However, standing up for the journey of faith upon which this young man has embarked has clearly been one of the greatest accomplishments of our youth ministry, and personally, one of my greatest highlights as a youth pastor. God clearly has a plan for this young man, and it is my hope that we as a community will continue to support him, pray for him, and surround him with the love and hope of Christ as he continues his faith journey, one step at a time.
May we come to see the cost of what it takes to endure in discipleship — in my case, the smoke on my sweater — is worth the salvation of even one soul.