by Lee Ann Pomrenke
One of my most consistently tricky statements for the game “2 Truths and a Lie” is that I spent a summer selling boots and cowboy hats at a ranch wear store. Nobody ever guesses that one is true (I went to high school in suburban Toledo, Ohio, but my grandma lived in Cody, Wyoming). During high school summers I also babysat and waitressed at a country club, poolside. Others I know worked at camps, stores or restaurants. What was your most unusual summer job? My mom’s only-partially-kidding take is that a teenager’s summer job is for motivation to return to school, so they do not end up doing that job the rest of their lives.
I think it is about more than that, and more even than making pocket money or necessities. It is about becoming. The summer jobs of our teen years can be like an internship for “adult-ing.” Aspiring-adults learn money and time management; coordination of their own transportation and meals; to adjust to the needs of younger children with respect and responsibility; to maintain health standards while preparing food. No matter what the context of their summer jobs are, faith communities can cultivate awareness about the human interactions our teenagers will have: self-awareness and social awareness. This is key to becoming faithful adults.
We support our affiliated camps and many congregations provide volunteer or stipended positions during weeks of Bible school or day camps. A congregation may not be able to employ all our affiliated teenagers the entire summer, but we can play a key role in building understanding of what they are doing, observing and experiencing on a deeper level. The year-round job of a faith community is always interpretation, making meaning out of how we spend our time. Is work only about the money? How does God regard us while we are doing what we are doing, and how do we live faithfully while responding to demands, trying to take care of other human beings or making sure “the customer is always right”?
Instead of waxing nostalgic about “When I was your age…” whenever you do encounter a teen at church this summer, try asking with genuine interest, “What kind of work are you doing this summer? What are you learning about ‘adulting’ from it? What has surprised you?” Challenge the teens you know to notice how people interact around them while they work, planting the seeds for self-awareness and social awareness: “Do male or female customers treat you differently? How do kids and their adults interact, especially with those who are noticeably different from them at the park, pool or library? How do you find yourself interacting with the kids from your own church or the neighborhood when you volunteer at our church’s summer programming? Is race ever a factor?” Speak to them as adults, since that is the identity they are living into. Be supportive if they cannot figure everything out on their own. It is definitely a long-term process.
Followers of Jesus have to be able to observe ourselves with a little distance, to wonder about where our actions and reactions come from. If we do not cultivate self-awareness, defensiveness will insulate us from correction later in life. And a Christian that can only see anybody’s actions from one angle can become dangerous, or at the least close-minded and alienating. A summer job is an excellent time to start, with a manageable sample size of people to observe up close, noticing their differences and similarities to ourselves, and perhaps questioning why interacting with them elicits certain responses from us. But processing these observations can be uncomfortable work, so we need to do it in an environment of trust, with people we already know are bound to love us, even when we notice behaviors or reactions from ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge. Having such vulnerable conversations at church with aspiring-adults reminds the already-adults to do the same and observe ourselves and how we interact with others. We all could benefit greatly from cultivating self-awareness. Like anything, do it enough and it becomes a habit.
In congregations we ought to follow the example of Christ in turning a critical eye to the way everybody treats especially those who are most vulnerable. Perhaps suggest that one week those working summer jobs (or everyone who works!) notice how people are around them are treated when they are not part of the dominant group: racially, economically, or in abilities to perform certain tasks. How do you think about responding or interrupting situations that feel “off” to you? What would you need to become a confident interrupter? That is a potent question for those working in permanent jobs or full-time care-giving as well. The witness to our faith made by standing out as different can be powerful for those who are searching for faith, God or hope.
When this season is over, perhaps we will shift how we think about the “youth” in the midst of our congregation. Instead of thinking about the teenagers as the oldest class of children to be taught and entertained, perhaps we can engage their budding leadership in better ways than providing a youth room in which to hang out, or an age-segregated Bible study. They are aspiring adults! As these young people have begun to assess their own capabilities for growth and change, learning from their perspectives would be a great way for us older-aspiring-adults to do the same. Do they notice differences in how they receive constructive criticism, and the ways others do? Did they need more tools to speak up and object in situations when people were not treated with dignity? Does remembering that we consider everyone to be “children of God” compel them to empathize with or stick up for others who are being disrespected? How does our faith affect how we work?
Rev. Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, writer and mother in St. Paul, Minnesota.
image: A participant in STL Youth Jobs fills a tub with medical supplies. The program provides low-income youth with a summer job, plus financial literacy and other job-skills training. SUSAN BENNET | OOH ST. LOU STUDIOS