It can be intimidating working with young people. Here are some tips to keep you focused on them.
While I was in college, my work-study job was at the South Boston (the locals call it Southie) Boys and Girls Club, and it was my pleasure to work there for four years. My first day was a “baptism by fire.” I was placed in the gym with my co-worker Craig and about 50 eight and nine-year old kids. While I was trying to find my way among the chaos, a kid walked up and stood right in front of me. He was just shy of four feet tall, skinny as a rail, with a Boston Bruins baseball hat pulled down so far he had to crane his neck back to look at me. He said, “Who are you?”
I said, “I’m Dishon. Who are you?”
“I’m Michael. You new here?”
“Yup. It’s my first day.” I didn’t know what else to say. As I struggled to think of a way to connect to the first young person I spoke to at my new job, Michael just stared at me.
Finally, with a thick Southie accent, he said, “Fight me!”
“Fight you?” I responded.
“Yeah. Fight me!”
I said, “I’ll pass. I don’t want to get beaten up on my first day.”
Nodding his head slowly, Michael replied, “That’s right you don’t!” He ran off and played with his friends. During my time at the Southie Club, I had many similar conversations with Michael. He was like the crime boss of his age group — always into something but never the one getting his hands dirty. Michael seemed to delight in spawning mischief every day, and I was continually having to remind him of the code of conduct. However, I always listened to him, joked around with him whenever I could, and never judged him as a “bad kid.” In return, Michael never lied to me. He always admitted to what he did and took the consequences I gave out. On a few occasions, he even intervened if a young person was giving me a hard time. Given how things went in his neighborhood, I can now see that Michael showed me great respect. I cannot say that I had a deep relationship with him, but I was blessed to win over a young man so different from myself.
It can be intimidating working with young people, especially those who reside across a cultural barrier (for example, age, race, income level, churched/unchurched, etc.). As we are compelled by love to engage the young people in our neighborhoods, we may find ourselves coming face-to-face with youth with very different backgrounds. Here are some lessons I have learned from Jesus about relating to youth across cultural barriers.
Be a human
When Jesus put on human flesh, he crossed the greatest of cultural barriers — the gulf between God and corrupted humanity. He became one of us so, among other reasons, he could tie himself to our fate and we would be tied to his. All humanity is united in Christ. When we relate to young people across cultural barriers, we have to see ourselves as united to them in Christ. We have to avoid having an “us” and “them” mentality.
There are few things that people value more than authenticity. To connect with young people, we have to be comfortable with ourselves and relate to them as honestly as possible. We respect proper boundaries, of course, but we should avoid trying to be something that we are not. In order to reveal the Father, Jesus was his full authentic self in our midst. Therefore, in order to reveal Christ to young people, we have to be our full authentic selves by the Spirit.
Be a learner
Jesus asked questions and was genuinely interested in what others thought. He went out of his way to talk to people and listen to their stories. We too should have the orientation of a learner. Living united does not mean that we ignore our differences. Instead, we should learn from others, allowing the stories of those from other backgrounds to shape how we see things.
Be a believer
Believing in Jesus involves trusting in his power to reconcile all things to himself. We do not cross cultural barriers on our own. We do so in Christ. Therefore, we should trust that he is able to break down dividing walls. We should believe that no cultural barrier is too great for God to bridge. Christ proved it by rescuing and redeeming humanity.
In the past, I felt intimidated when working with young people from different backgrounds because I focused too much on the things I did not know. By the Spirit, I had to learn to focus on the things I did know.
- I know that Jesus lives in me.
- I know that he wants to lavish his love on the young people around me, and he can use me to do it. I know that our unity in Christ is greater than anything that divides us.
- I know I can learn compassion for others from Jesus.
- I know that whatever happens today, Christ has already won the ultimate victory.
I pray that you know these things as well and let nothing stop you from reaching out to the young people you are led to by the Spirit — even the little ones who challenge you to fights.
Dishon Mills, U.S. Generations Ministry Coordinator