A RIFF OF LOVE - Greg Jarrell
Since 2005, my wife Helms and I have been neighbors and ministers in an economically poor, but asset rich, neighborhood in Charlotte called Enderly Park. We are consistently delighted by the gifts that our neighbors share with us, so we put ourselves in positions to get to experience those gifts as often as possible. During one summer, we are with our youth group of one dozen teens at Mars Hill College, a small school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. We have come to join with fifteen other groups for the 2008 edition of summer youth camp. The week promises to be the perfect mix of spiritual growth and teenagers pushing every conceivable limit. There is no reasonable explanation for why otherwise sensible adults continue to put on summer camps. Yet here we are again, for another week of collectively holding our breath. I am partially responsible, having helped to plan the camp and signed the youth up to come. And despite my anxiety, I expect that this week will help to grow some imaginations and to plant some new thoughts in these young people about how they might develop and utilize their gifts.
Following an early wake-up call at home, we drive up hours ahead of registration time in order to hike a spur of the Appalachian Trail called “Lover’s Leap.” We have picked a beautiful day for the hike. It is dry, a little cool for June, and clear. The trail is perfect. It is short, and becomes steep quickly, almost immediately after the trailhead. Within just a few feet, we already seem to be deep in the forest. The air is different in these woods. It is damp and cool. Sunlight peeks between leaves, dappling the trail under our feet. We are nestled into ancient and wise hills. They offer themselves to us, slowly revealing their rugged charm as we wind higher.
I think these youth catch the difference in the air also, or at least I hope they do. But that in no way slows their obscene amount of complaining. Jarrett knows that we brought him out here to kill him. Crystal is sure that the bears are just behind that tree over there. Camille has to stop every ten steps to rest, and she is just not sure she is going to make it. The youth have all learned the survival skill of turning fear into humor, which means that despite the bellyaching, the trip up is fun.
Our calves are burning, and poor Camille swears she is going to pass out, when the trail flattens out. We have come up the backside of the hill, and now we are cresting it and approaching the overlook. The noise stops. A moment of holiness descends. We survey the French Broad River a thousand feet below us, the river valley giving way to mountains, row after row of hulking shoulders, the sky blue and crisp, holding the impossible together. The moment is brief, but the discovery sparkles in their eyes. How could this place even be here? And can we even believe that we climbed all the way up this mountain?
The moment ends when Camille announces that she could never live here because it would take too long to walk to the corner store. But the mystery touches us, nestled here in the hills. The mystery still holds us, I remind myself sometimes. We head down to the river to dip our feet in and to commune over sandwiches.
At the end of the first day of camp, we are settling down in the dorm back at the college. The boys and the chaperones take some time to reflect on what we have done over the course of the day. They are all very excited. They tell me about the friends they remember from last summer, the girls they have seen, the basketball competition they have been sizing up, the ice cream included with every meal. Even ice cream for breakfast. We make bets about who will eat the most over the week. We talk until lights out, and then the chaperones double check to be sure that everyone is in their rooms.
I have been a youth minister for long enough—and a youth recently enough—to recall that there are two nights at youth camp where things are most likely to go awry. The last night can be trying for a chaperone, because no one has to give a damn about what the adults say anymore. Everyone is simply riding home the next day, so there is no reasonable punishment to be administered. As a chaperone, there is nothing to do but hope for the best.
The other worrisome night is the first night, when the hormones and energy that always rage through teens have kicked into warp speed. A week of thrills awaits. The freedom of leaving behind families and entering into new turf with hundreds of peers is present. This is no time to sleep. The party must begin.
My first-night-of-camp policy is for chaperones to take up residence in the hallway. We are ready to greet any would-be ruffian or reveler who happens to be slipping through the hall. I grab a journal, a book, and a cold drink, and settle in. Making sure everyone is in bed might take a while, so we are ready. But after a half an hour has passed, all seems to be going pretty well. There is not much noise, and while the lights are still on, no one has yet tried so much as dashing across the hall. We are all tired after a long day, and the bed is beginning to call to us. We decide to give it five more minutes when we hear a disturbance in the stairwell. I look up, ready to respond to someone else’s youth out making mischief. Instead, towards me marches the dorm’s resident director, the only woman in the entire residence hall. She is clearly unhappy. She stops in front of us and points to what I thought, until this moment, was a well-behaved room of my guys. “Who is responsible for these gentlemen?” she asks, pointing to Jake and Shawn’s room. “I’m directly under them, and it sounds like a drumline rehearsal in there.”
“I am,” I answer. “But we have been sitting a couple of feet from their door for nearly an hour now, and we haven’t noticed any noise.” I am legitimately curious, ready to defend my youth but also ready to establish to them from the first day what my expectations are and exactly how I want them met. She insists that Jake and Shawn’s room is the guilty one, so I make my decision. These boys are going to know that I am in charge and that I expect full compliance when it comes to bedtime habits. Roused from my reverie, I puff out my chest, hike up my pants, lower my voice, and pound on the door, ready to set the tone for an orderly, well-behaved week
“Fellas, what’s going on in here? This poor lady is complaining about the noise she hears from your room. She says y’all are louder than a herd of elephants.”
Shawn and Jake look innocent enough. They are in bed, and seem not just a little surprised that I am questioning them. They deny causing any noise. “We’re just laying here, Greg,” Shawn says. At first glance, I think that maybe the resident director is imagining things. Nothing appears unusual. The guys are quiet, and I know them well enough to sense that they are telling me the truth. This is a tight spot for me—who am I going to side with? The angry Resident Director, who is in charge and able to make complaints to our camp leadership? My young men, who are trying to make it this week in a world far from home in almost every way, and who are trusting me to keep them safe? Or my own gut, which senses that something is not right about the accusation, but also needs to set clear boundaries?
A second look around the room reveals where the noise has come from. Shawn and Jake decided to do some redecorating in their dorm room. They rearranged the furniture. The desks are piled in one corner, the wardrobes in another, and the beds are shoved together in the leftover space. This strikes me as odd. Shawn and Jake grew up on one of the toughest streets in Charlotte. At fifteen or sixteen years old, they have cultivated a correspondingly tough image. And as straight teenage boys, I suspect that the intimacy of sleeping so close together might be a bit uncomfortable for them.
The noise complaint makes sense now. The sound of furniture being pushed across their floor, which was the resident director’s ceiling, created a lot of racket. I’m not upset at this point, just curious, and I am absolutely going to side with my guys. So I ask why they have redecorated the room. Shawn jumps to explain. “Now, Greg, don’t get mad about that. It’s just that Jake forgot his blanket, so I told him that we could push our beds together and I would share mine.”
The friendships that I witness and am a part of in Enderly Park are part of the story of my salvation. They are the clearest way that the good news is at work in my life. Jesus calls in gentle and surprising ways that move me to deeper love of God and neighbor. Jake and Shawn are two friends who witness to God’s tender love for all creation. As I pound on their door the first night of camp, I am ready to be a teacher and disciplinarian. I am prepared to assert my leadership and to show Jake and Shawn the error of their ways.
To me, the most important thing about the experience of this first night is the establishment of a hierarchy, the clear communication that my trust of them will be built on their willingness to do what I say. They are being rude, I plan to say. They are not following my instructions. But my priorities for them are not their own priorities. They have other work to do, the kind that Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount when he teaches his hearers not to do their good works in public, looking for affirmation. Instead, do them in secret, without seeking recognition. I suspect that Shawn has practiced this way of goodness for so long that it never occurs to him to do anything else. Shawn does not talk much about Jesus, but he lives in a way that shows deep theological knowledge alive in his body.
I knock on Shawn and Jake’s door unaware that I am entering sacred ground that will train me into the meaning and practice of friendship. This will not be a class in friendship as an idea. There will be no philosophical theory of friendship. It is far more personal than that. Jake and Shawn are teaching me what kind of friend I am, and what kind of friend I could learn to be.
I am learning that I am the kind of friend that, had Jake told me about his lack of covers, would have responded immediately. But my response would have been based out of pity for him, and a chance to be a hero for myself. I would have seen him as a charity case, and would have gone out quickly to buy some stuff for him. I believe in Visa as my Lord and Savior, Wal-Mart as the manifestation of God’s abundance on the earth. The following morning I would have acted a little tired so that I could quietly tell a couple of other chaperones about my midnight run. I would have pretended not to make a big deal out of it while not keeping it totally secret.
Having a friend who can and will buy you a blanket when you need a blanket is not without value. A good friend will want to do that for you if they can. In a one-time situation, having a relationship where you can confide a need to someone who is willing to utilize their own resources to help is a beautiful thing. Everyone needs to be in relationships like that, on both the side of giving and the side of need. But that is not what is happening here. Jake does not confide in me. In fact, he chooses not to. Perhaps he knows I will turn him into a charity case. Perhaps he senses that I cannot be fully trusted with such sensitive information about his lack of resources. Maybe he just does not think about it, because a lack of resources has always been the norm for him. In a situation where he lacks what he needs, he uses what he has—a friend. He confides in Shawn with the trust that their growing up together has created a solidarity whereby Shawn will take Jake’s problem and turn it into his own, at which point the two of them can work together to solve the problem.
This is the kind of friendship on display at Mars Hill College on this night. Those young men lie down together in solidarity, where the problem of one becomes the problem of both. Theirs is the kind of friendship that Jesus, the enfleshed God who “moves to the neighborhood,” embodies in the gospel. Jake and Shawn are preaching the good news to me, with their lives.