by Kaze Gadway
“They’ll never bring money into the Church.” In the past eleven years, this is the main complaint about having a Native American youth program. Oh, and “They don’t know what to do in Church services. They whisper during the service.”
No matter. There are more Native youth in Episcopal Church services in Northern Arizona than I can transport. It is heartbreaking to tell a youth he or she can’t go to Church today because there is no room in the van.
This is not a youth group where parents go to church and someone takes care of the kids. We plan events and meet in houses or parks or a fast food place to gather as the People of God. The youth are from twelve years to twenty-four. All are from homes of poverty, violence, addiction and some level of abuse. Most have been incarcerated or are on probation. They live in the border towns of Holbrook, Winslow, Joseph City, and Sun Valley in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. We have created a short slang version of the Daily Office. We travel far to receive the Eucharist.
Several key events have shifted my understanding of being a lay youth minister with these promising youth who have made a place for themselves in the Church.
Once the youth are making Christmas decor for families when two of the Middle School youth begin arguing underneath the table. “I’m going to hell,” says one youth defiantly. “Everyone says so. I lie and talk back to my parents.”
“My mom says that I’m so bad that even hell won’t accept me,” replies the other youth.
I sit down on the floor near them and ask, “Why do you think you are going to hell?”
“God hates people like us,” is the simple response.
Until then I had not realized that the most common image of God is a god of harsh judgment and condemnation. Or that being a Christian meant having behaviors that let you fit into the dominant race.
We started visiting different Episcopal Churches that would not fling racial insults at them. It took a while before I realized that the youth evaluated each church not on the sermon, or the music or the liturgy but on the welcome they received.
“That was a good church,” says one of the youth.
“What makes it good?” I ask.
The answers they give have remained consistent over the years. “They really enjoyed passing the peace to us. No one turned away.” “They talked to me at the coffee hour like I was just a regular person and not a Native.” “They invited us back like they really wanted us there.”
Finding churches where the laity respond lovingly to youth who are a different culture is rare. It is more common for people to ask me why the youth fidget or sit off by themselves or don’t wear clean clothes to church. (They don’t realize the youth don’t have money for good clothes.)
My second learning is I was taught in my weekly visit to Juvenile Detention. I visit one of the youth in lock down. Guards had cut him down when he used his towel to hang himself. He almost died.
“What’s keeping you alive now?” I ask.
“Well, you know how you always begin prayers with me saying ‘God, this is your beloved son. He needs your help.’ I don’t know why, but I have started praying every night and morning by identifying myself the same way. It seems to help me not be so alone. And when you give me the consecrated bread, you always say that God is in this place and lives within me. I think that I am beginning to believe it. I thought that messing up would keep God away.”
My third learning when we began giving food and clothes to the homeless on a regular basis. One of the youth admitted that he finally understood what his grandmother taught him about respect. “She always said that as Natives, we respect everyone from the youngest to the eldest but I had a hard time looking at the homeless with respect. Everyone in town compares us to the homeless who beg for money, who don’t do anything and who don’t seem to like themselves. I think when you asked them to pray for us, I began to realize that they are my relatives. I feel like I am doing God’s work and honoring my ancestors at the same time.”
My fourth learning is on change. Some youth are still into drugs and violence. Some are in college or have a steady job. What has made the difference? I ask some of the young adults how they changed.
One young man told me this story. “I remember when I thought that God wasn’t for me. Then on our mission trip we were playing in the ocean. We were all laughing so hard about being knocked down by the waves and getting up with salt in our eyes and mouths. I stood up and it was like all the joy in the world came flooding into me. I felt whole. You tell us that forgiveness is a done deal when we turn to God. And that where God is found, there is holy ground. Standing in the ocean, I started shouting ‘Thank you God. The other kids starting yelling with me. People looked at us like we were crazy. But it was real.”
That’s it. That’s how you get youth on a spirit journey. Transformation is the name of the game. The laity they encounter in and out of church are the key. The journey begins by their being welcomed and cherished for who they are. They learn that God is just a prayer away. They can be God’s hands and feet and find wholeness. They can recognize the holy in their lives.
One more thing. I watch these young men and women be acolytes, respond to those who are hurt, comfort the bruised in spirit, and stay up all night with those who want to die. Being blessed they share blessings with others. They are already emerging leaders of the Episcopal Church. Now they need to be recognized.
It will require imagination to keep up with what God is doing in the lives of these young people. That is the holy work required of us.
Kaze Gadway has worked with the emerging leaders of the Episcopal Church within the Native American community of Northern Arizona as a volunteer for eleven years. They are youth of promise from ages twelve to twenty-four. The Spirit Journey Youth is an outreach program of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona with forty young people. She is on Facebook and blogs at infaith’s posterous
(ed. note: A poem by Jeremy Blackwater of Spirit Journey Youth was featured on the Art Blog)