Monday, June 27, 2016

Camp and Hope

I am trying to enjoy some of the “rest” we were promised during our week at KAA (Kids Across America) by reading my YA novel in the warm sunshine, dangling my feet in the pool to keep from sweating too badly. Somewhat unsurprisingly based on the week thus far, I am almost immediately called from my poolside oasis to deal with one of our 49 kids causing some major discipline issues. I roll my eyes at another kaleo(KAA speak for ministry leaders) and joke, of course we have another one in trouble. I wonder if she hears the weariness hidden beneath my tone, deliberately light-hearted. I alternate between faux despair over our ridiculous number of children in trouble, and a plastered smile, like it doesn’t even bother me: oh sure, add another one to our fire-zone collection, I laugh with a shrug. Technically, the "fire zone" marks the last straw. The place kids end up when they can no longer be considered campers, and thus become the responsibility of their kaleos. They eat PB sandwiches (no jelly!) for every meal, drag their luggage around with them, and sleep on the open-air gym floor (along with their poor, unlucky kaleo). Unfortunately, one of our kiddos reaches said status before even making it 24 hours into camp. Throughout the week, a grand total of nine of our kiddos make it to the fire zone, but only two actually sleep in the gym and never work their way back into the good graces of camp.
Nearly twenty percent of the fifty kids we brought to camp are currently homeless as the result of eviction. One would think a week of guaranteed meals and a warm bed would be a welcome respite for them; instead, the chaos of their home life spills straight over into their time at camp, and almost all of them find themselves in trouble at some point throughout the week. I watch other ministry leaders take their kids to buy things at the camp store: $35 for a sweatshirt, $15 for a hat, $3 for a bracelet. I can’t help but think about the three kids we let come last minute, who each hurriedly pack a plastic walmart bag and hand it to me: ms becca, I brought all my clothes, the youngest reports proudly.

We tell ourselves our kids are the ones getting in trouble because they come from the roughest circumstances. Because spiritual warfare. Because of so much hurt. My sneaking suspicion, nevertheless, is that the problem may actually be us. Adam and I both lean hard towards grace, and somehow always neglect to teach them high standards of behavior. We don’t command respect, they certainly don’t fear us, and possibly don’t even like us. I feel embarrassed, the same way I do when my kids throw epic temper tantrums mid-Target run. I want our kiddos to be themselves, of course, but only an acceptably polished version. I’d like to feel accomplished and proud, like good parents and ministry leaders. I secretly wonder if the other leaders roll their eyes at our incompetence.

My complicated inner monologue (as written out here) is not a cry for help, or a fishing for compliments and reassurance. Truly, it’s not. Because if I learned anything while we accumulated kids in the fire zone, it’s this: the things they carry are heavy. And so we sit with the ones who get in trouble, and just listen.

One of our fourteen year olds confesses he has been sleeping on park benches. One tells us about going hungry for days at a time. One girl tells us about sitting in a car at age ten, and shielding her younger brother while they watched their mother get shot and killed. Another watches her older bother’s kids full-time, she is fourteen and they are three kids under the age of three. One tells us her dad is in jail for robbing a bank. Another was raped by a neighbor when she was twelve. One’s mom died when she was four, her dad followed earlier this year, and she lives with her disabled grandmother. One screams guttural and anguished for twenty minutes about ending his life: he doesn’t want to get on the bus to go home.
I sit quiet beside them, mostly because I have no good answers. I’m not sure what to say, how to take away the massive weights they bear in their small bodies. So instead I do the only thing I know to do: I take their hand and carry some of their weight for them. I give it to Jesus, of course, because I could never bear it alone. But even still, their burdens sit heavy on my shoulders and heart, and in the knots of tension all down my back. We breathe deep, and hold gently and with awe the heaviness of the stories they offer up like prayers. I hug them close, recognizing the holy ground we stand on in the heartbreak and pain. The thin places where heaven and the Kingdom draws ever-nearer. Together, we look up at the sky strewn with stars and try to remember that God is good and his promises are true. That He numbers those stars, and that He knows each of their names. We cannot, truly, fathom the depths of the gift we have been given by being entrusted with the lives and stories of these remarkable little ones, beloved by their Father.
On the last day of camp, I joke with all the counselors and leaders that they must be glad to see us go. After the evening awards ceremony, I am nearly ready to breathe a sigh of relief as we herd our children towards the bus. We walk through the woods and across the field under a black sky littered with stars, I feel my nerves stretch taut and my patience worn thin. I snap at a boy who calls me fat, asking if I’m pregnant, and think this might embarrassingly be the thing that breaks me clear through. As we walk up to the buses, I feel tension crackle in the air and notice huddled groups of leaders. Bewildered, I crowd my group of kids onto the bus, only to learn that our older boys got into a fist fight with another group just moments earlier. Of course they did, I sigh. One of the KAA leadership gets on the bus and informs us (sternly, to say the least), that we won’t be leaving until whoever stole another kids’ shoes coughs them up; in fact, he will call the Missouri police to search the entire bus if we don’t hand over the shoes in five minutes. Adam and I (along with our other two Kaleos) are so-far-past-finished, completely wrung out and desperate to be home. We beg and plead with the boys seated in the back of the bus to just give up the shoes for-the-love-of-everything. They insist with wide-eyed innocence that they didn’t take them; one of our boy’s elbows bleeds, and another asks if I can wrap his hand, which he thinks he broke punching several boys in the face. I toss the first aid kit at them and add their names to the list of those we won’t bring back. We search under every seat, in every overhead bin, and make all the kids stand up to check underneath them. Finally, we stand up for our boys and insist they don’t have the shoes, only to have one of them trot off the bus with a grin and hand them over. I am livid, past angry nearly to the point of tears. And we still have a thirteen hour bus ride ahead of us. I duck under my blanket, and pray they all just sleep.

I wake up hours later, surprised to find that we have, in fact, all slept. That the sun rises quietly over Memphis, the sky steeping in reverse: from dark ink to brilliant pink and orange, finally settling into blue. Some of the other kids at KAA this week were from Memphis, and I think about them as everyone else snores and snuggles under blankets, oblivious to the brilliant show-stopping sunrise outside their windows. They are home already, I think enviously. While we still have so far to go.
I wrote this post earlier this week, and couldn’t figure out how to end it. I asked Adam to read it for me, and then to tell me what to say for the ending. He reads it, and then tells me he doesn’t know; in fact, he says, it might be too soon for him to even revisit that week, it caused flashbacks.

So I sit beside the ocean and pray; hoping God will show me how to tie a nice big bow around it all. Hoping for reassurance that the things we sow and the work we do will, in fact, eventually reap a great harvest. But I only hear silence, besides the ocean roaring and our children giggling. The tide comes in and out, and Isaiah falls asleep in the shade under the umbrella. The sun beats relentless, and the sand burns my toes until I burrow them down deeper. I have no answers, which seems to be my constant refrain. Instead, I try to rest in the only thing I do hear: to end with hope. That the story is not finished, and He will one day take all that is wrong and make it right. Come Lord Jesus, come.

Those of you who get my email newsletter have also read a more specific story from camp and our family and what’s going on currently. I know this sounds quite cryptic, it’s just that the story was too tender and painful for me to feel comfortable sharing publicly. All that to say, if you didn’t receive our email newsletters and would like to, please shoot me an email (rebecca at and let me know, I’ll be happy to pass it along. Thank you all so much for your prayers and encouragement.


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