I left you on somewhat of a cliffhanger with the beginning of my faith story. The next chapter of my faith story has influenced not only my personal life, faith and responses, but how I use those within my vocation. This story is an integral piece of who I am and how I view my purpose in the world. As I said in my last post, you may not believe in God, but I feel I am not being my most authentic self without my faith.
From that day freshman year of high school, I grew in MY relationship with MY God. Understanding how to talk to MY God and how to listen. God was with me through many steps. The end of my gymnastics career, which was met with a sense of loss that I'd have to find a new "balance beam" or place to talk to God. Being unaccepted to my first choice of colleges. To arriving at Jacksonville State with a sense of un-belonging. To making some of my very best friends and places to belong, being myself. As it turns out, none of this was too difficult because God had already planned it all out. Well, hindsight is always 20/20, right?
The next step in my faith journey was near the end of my freshman year of college, kicked off by a phone interview with my now, favorite person in the world, Paul. He was interviewing me to be a counselor at summer camp. Honestly, other than his accent (he's from New Zealand!) and the fact that he'd forgotten about the time change between Georgia (where he was) and Alabama (where I was in the middle of English class), I don't remember the conversation. I don't remember saying anything all that exciting or impressionable to being a camp counselor. I don't remember anything he shared about camp. I just remember knowing God was a part of it. I accepted the summer job and entered into 5 of the most meaningful years of my faith.
My 5 years in camp and conference ministry and my faith journey there can be capsulated to one story. It was in my second summer as a camp counselor that I learned the most. Specifically, I learned, God is not just MY God. God used me. God showed me how I would work to bring others to recognize God's presence. Being a camp counselor taught me so much about life and even being a parent. Keeping watch. Not really sleeping through the night, knowing there are little people in the room next door completely under your care and responsibility. To help frame this story, I was the camp counselor for a group of 2nd-5th graders for 10 whole days. 10 day camp was 5 extra days beyond the normal week.10 day camp brings more fun and more challenges. Homesickness was real. But so was getting to know each other and building relationships. Those 10 days seemed to bring the most diverse group of children. Children from all types of walks of life. Trying to teach and lead from all those different directions was HARD and mentally exhausting. I had to dig deep and trust God. It seems God trusted me... a little more than I was prepared to be trusted. Isn't that how God works best though? A sliver of doubt and God enters in.
Several events happened for me in the span of those 10 days that some camp counselors won't see in an entire summer. Each equally as important and all fitting for God to tell me at once. The one which stands out was a child named Sarah. (To be sure, her name has been changed to protect her identity.) Sarah was a teeny tiny, hadn't been to 2nd grade yet and barely fit the age cut off for this group, child. She was a little shy, but because she was so sweet and small, the other kids immediately loved her and wanted to take care of her. She arrived to the cabin and quietly setup her bed. It seemed as though she was in a constant state of nervousness, needing reassurance. As often happens once parents leave, the shy, nervous ones cling to the counselors. She clung to me like a shadow. We went through the first days of camp, canoeing, archery, afternoons at the pool and hikes. As the days progressed, she participated with the other kids well, but still wanted to be next to me at all times. There are signs those of us who teach children are trained to notice. Sarah presented many of the signs of a child with a background we don't want to see. I paid attention to them, but tried not to let it overshadow who she was. Not to mention, the other 16 kids in the group I was responsible for loving equally, at the same time!
Each night, everyone would gather to worship. A chaplain would lead the children in music, a Bible story and collective connection to God through worship. One night during those 10 days, the chaplain asked a question for us to consider on our own, then he began to pray aloud. As he prayed aloud, Sarah sitting right next to me, began to fidget. If you've ever sat next to a child in worship, fidgeting is not out of the ordinary. Really, it is a given. As Sarah continued to fidget, I couldn't help but feel God enter in. God was looking me in the eyes saying, "I am about to do something. I trust you to trust me." The chaplain finished the prayer and everyone began to shift knowing we were about to head back to our cabins. Sarah looked up at me and said, "Something happened." Immediately, panic set in. What do I do. What do I say. Who can I ask to help. I knew. God.
This is how the conversation began:
Sarah - "Something happened."
Me - "What happened?"
Sarah - "I can't tell you."
Me - "What do you mean you can't tell me?"
Sarah - "I just can't. My mom told me not to."
They teach us, in these types of conversations, the best thing to do is listen. Ultimately, that is all they want and NEED. To be heard. Often times, children in situations of abuse or manipulation are taught to trust no one. They are taught to stay silent. When they finally experience trust, they open up. It is best to meet their openness with more openness through open-ended questions and a non-reactive, non-anxious presence. At the time, I did not have much real life experience with this, so my panic set in. I didn't know what to do or say. But God did. God did it for me. Remember that out of body experience I had while standing on top of the balance beam? Feeling as if someone wasn't going to let me fall? This was exactly like that, only I was sitting on a bench, with my feet safely on the ground next to a tiny, scared child. We continued in conversation. Me, Sarah and God. It seemed Sarah could feel God too because she kept talking. For a little while, she talked in circles. I could tell she was building herself up, trying to be brave. She was also testing me; "Will she react? Will she listen? Will she help me?" God was right there. "Stay with her. She's getting there. Don't get distracted." Finally, Sarah got to the climax of her truth, telling me about an event that happened with her mom at home. Her mom had been abusive toward her. By the time she got to that part of the conversation, somehow, I was not surprised. I had seen and experienced ALL the signs they say you'll see. THAT was the surprising part, for me. All the knowledge I'd gained, worked in a real life situation. Even bigger, but less surprising was God showing me the way. I sat and listened to Sarah. We got to a point in our conversation where we had to move the entire group of kids from the pavilion to our cabin to prepare for bedtime. I remember saying to Sarah, "I am so proud of you. I can tell that took a lot of courage for you. I want you to know that I heard you and I believe you." I had never said these kinds of words in this context and truthfully shocked myself to hear them coming from my mouth. That was God. God was doing the listening and talking for me. Really, God was doing the listening and talking THROUGH me. I also had to tell Sarah that I could not keep our conversation to myself. She, somewhat surprisingly to me, non-anxiously asked, "Who will you tell?" I pointed toward my boss, Paul and said I would need to tell him. I think she knew this before she ever began. I think she even hoped for this outcome. She said, "Okay. I like Paul. I think he will listen too." I took the deepest breath of relief. As deep as my breath of relief was, Sarah's was deeper.
This story doesn't end there. In some ways, unfortunately. On the last day of those 10 days of camp, we had packed our bags, were walking towards the gathering space for closing worship and to meet parents for pick up. Sarah, as usual, was walking right next to me. I felt a sense of dread. There was no way of knowing what would happen next. There was no way to know that by following the protocols and sharing her story would result in a positive outcome. Since then I have come to learn unfortunately, more often than we'd like, the outcome is not positive. As we approached the top of the hill, Sarah looked up and made a surprised sound. She reached to hold my hand and I knew what she had seen. Her mom. The one who, by Sarah's accounts, had abused this tiny little girl into silence and manipulation. I wanted to cry. Again, I didn't know what to say. There wasn't much I could do to make it better. Sliver of doubt? God enters in. Sarah, holding my hand, squeezed it 3 times... "I. Love. You." Somehow, we knew it would all be okay. Someday. Sarah left camp with her mom and sister. I sobbed. Did I do enough? What can I do now? What will happen to her?
I thought about Sarah all the time. I saw her in so many of the kids I would student teach. I wondered and prayed for her. Two years later, God answered my prayers. I got to see Sarah again. She came back to camp. Because of the work God used me to do, she had an improved life of safety. I don't know where she is now or what kind of person she is today at 18 years old (What!). Being a small part of her life, changed my faith. MY God became OUR God. OUR God works through each and every one of us. Are we paying attention? Are we listening when God looks us in the eyes and says, "I am about to do something. I trust you to trust me."?
*This is my favorite little spot at camp. While not the scene of my story above, represents many memories from that time. Worship happened here. S'mores consumed here! Many bug, spider and snake encounters here. Friendships formed and strengthened here. Lots of laughter shared here. Even a few tears shed here. The person who took this photo. The shadow of the cross perfectly represents the shadow of God's presence and connection through it all.