by Lisa Long
Spring is one of my favorite times of year. Winter is finally over. Flowers burst from the ground. The air fills with glorious perfume. It’s as if the whole earth celebrates redemption’s birthday. Easter Sunday is the pinnacle of spring delight with all of our traditions on full display. We romp around with a bounce in our step presenting our Easter best.
This is precisely the scene on a recent Easter Sunday as our delightful Children’s pastor cheerfully roams our church greeting everyone in her path, young and old with the familiar “He is Risen,” which sounds particularly sweet with her upward inflection at the end. She patiently awaits the expected response, “He is Risen indeed!” She peppers the campus with this declarative exchange until she encounters a single mom with her 4-year-old son from our local urban neighborhood. The sun is shining brightly as they meet one another in the crosswalk. This dear woman, not familiar with our religious traditions, is completely unsuspecting. Nevertheless, our sweet, bright-eyed, bouncy-stepped, Children’s pastor looks squarely at the woman’s son and joyfully proclaims, “He is Risen!”, upward inflection and all. She pauses for reply with a broad smile on her face then stares in anticipation at the confused mom who promptly whacks her son on the head and instructs him sternly, “Say thank you!”
I love this story because it demonstrates the gap between our experiences. When we gather in church, too many of us assume that everyone knows the unspoken realities of church culture. These assumptions create barriers and prevent us from becoming an effective support for the urban single mom (or dad) in our midst.
Understand Your Differences
If assumptions create barriers to effective support, then it only makes sense that the first step toward healthy support is to understand that our experiences are different, perhaps vastly different. Recognizing that is key but what comes next is vital. Don’t judge. Look for common denominators.
In other words, you can want to help her all day long. But if you offer help in your language and you expect her to reply in your language, then you both are probably going to be disappointed. You will likely be of little help. And someone may get hurt. It’s important to see the difference in experiences because it is effective for locating need base. If you think her experience is like yours, you will think her need is like yours and that is probably not the case. Once you designate the difference you must do your best to communicate in her language.
Another common barrier builder is to view her through the lens of her need. Also, you must know that her needs are not merely monetary. The lack in the life of an urban single mom stretches beyond money. Furthermore, she is not the sum of the lack in her life nor should it define her to you. She has anxieties about providing for her children and protecting her children that may be completely foreign to you.
Jesus with Skin On
As a youth leader, you likely work within walking distance of her home. Her children feel safe when they hang out with your group and that brings her comfort. Whether she is committed to Jesus or not, she appreciates that connection. It is an act of love to her. She lives in the city and that translates into higher risk factors for her children, especially when they are home alone. She works, and the more time her kids spend with you the better she feels about that. Pretty soon she notices how your influence shapes their behavior. Instead of hanging with gangs, maybe her kids are serving meals to the homeless with your church or finding other more productive ways to spend their time or serve their community. They get into less trouble than before. They don’t fight as much. Steal as much. You are helping her teach them. This is a significant support but it scratches the surface of her need.
She has practical needs which can seem overwhelming, like trying to support multiple families. I remember when my husband, who is very involved as a volunteer in our youth ministry, began spending time with the teenage boys from our church neighborhood. It wasn’t long before they looked to him for things like getting their driver’s licenses and applying for jobs. You might think there is no way you would sit in the DMV for anyone else’s kid but that act of kindness is life-changing for a teenager and a single mom who can’t do it for themselves. It’s a “Jesus with skin on” moment and you know it when you’re in it.
If you are privileged to help a family in a similar way, make sure you do the upfront work before you drive them to the DMV. Don’t assume they know what they should do before they get there. You don’t want to make multiple trips or waste time. The reality of their lives is they often operate on limited information and limited access to information. One of the greatest services you can provide is to help educate as you assist. When you do that you are teaching them how to do these things. They in turn teach their friends. That is empowering for them. Empowerment is a gift. They will love you for it. You will love you for it.
One boy in our group had a baby with his girlfriend and occasionally needed help caring for his child. It’s not uncommon to find a single mom with teenage children who have become single parents. These are some of the reasons you want to be involved. You can’t be intimidated by the need. You are not the personal provider. God is, and God can handle it. Don’t fear. Too often good leaders shy away from helping because they fear being responsible. But an effective leader will let it go and trust God to provide. And you have to communicate that fact to the moms and students you support.
Trusting God is obvious and essential. What might not be so easy to spot is that you need to engage responsibly. Always! Be accountable. Whether it is to your supervisor or a staff peer, stay in open communication about your activities with students and moms. Offering support is one of the greatest and most godly services we can give one another. But it must always be done responsibly. Most interactions and relationships begin with a good start; however, conflict is inevitable. If you operate within proper boundaries, when conflict arises it can be more easily managed and far less likely to harm the parties involved. Those you support may ask you to breach boundaries. When you refuse you will probably earn respect; even if you don’t, stick to the boundaries. They exist to protect both parties. Be very careful about allowing your compassion to hijack boundaries. This almost always leads to trouble. You might feel noble in the beginning but soon enough you will feel abused and trapped. Then instead of being full of energy and love you find yourself bitter and burned out.
Remember that you are in ministry because you want to serve. You want to serve God. You want to serve God’s people. Whatever form that takes for you in youth ministry, your students with urban single moms (and dads, too) have unique needs. It is a demographic with its own set of challenges. The amazing news is that you are positioned for maximum impact in their lives. Even better news is that you don’t have to do it alone: “He is risen! Say thank you!”
Lisa Long is the Middle School Pastor at Belmont Church in Nashville, Tenn. where she has served Belmont’s Mosaic Youth for the past five years. She has walked with the group through two youth pastor transitions; during the last transition she served as Interim Youth Pastor for a little over a year. However, teaching, training, and shaping middle school students is her passion. Lisa holds a Doctor of Divinity from Tabernacle Bible College & Seminary where she is pursuing her Ph.D.