It was a Monday morning like every other Monday morning. I was half awake and tired from a long day at church the day before. I was climbing into the shower wondering why my senior pastor thought Monday morning meetings were a good idea. Just when I was almost asleep in the shower, the phone rang. My wife had already left for work, so I got out of the shower to answer the phone thinking she needed something.
Other person: “Where are you?”
Me, still groggy: “Home, who is…”
Other person: “Did the youth meet in the house behind the church last night?”
Me: “Yes. Why?” (At this point I’ve figured out that it is Sue Ann, the church business administrator. You know, the staff person who thinks she has the most power and is in everyone’s business…especially the youth minister’s.)
Sue Ann: “The FBI wants to talk with you. Be here in 15 minutes.”
Me: “About what?”
Sue Ann: “Classifed. Be here in 15 minutes.”
Me: “I live 20 minutes away…in the shower…”
I arrived on my church’s campus to find police and firefighters everywhere. The back half of our church property had been cordoned off with yellow tape. I’m not sure where they found that much tape. I parked my car and evidently put my life in jeopardy by crossing the yellow line, because the nearest police officer was ready to arrest me on the spot. I explained that my presence was requested. After confirming that the FBI was looking for me, I was escorted to where the FBI have set up their post and were coordinating the actions of the police, fire department, and (I quickly realized) the special response task force. I could see a two guys getting suited up in Hazmat suits talking with one of the church’s maintenance staff members.
Agent X: “Mr. Kirk, can you tell me what transpired in this building (the house behind our church used for some Sunday school classes and small groups) last night?
Me: “We have two youth small groups that meet in that building. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
Agent X: “No. Do you have the names of all individuals known to be in that building last night?”
Agent X: “We need those names and any contact information you have. Now.”
Me: “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
Agent Y: “Mr. Kirk, we have discovered a mysterious white powdery substance covering the entire upstairs hallway of this building. We believe it to be anthrax.”
Me: “You’ve got to be kidding; why would someone anthrax our counseling center?”
Agent Y: “That’s what we are trying to find out. So if you would kindly aid us by giving us those names…”
At this point, my youth ministry investigative brain—which had watched enough CSI and worked with youth for 15 years—went to work. I realized that one of the two small groups that met in that building included three of my primary troublemakers. I told the agent that I could give him all the names or I could give him those most likely to be involved. He wants both. I suggested that Jamie, Jim, and Stan would be the young men to begin with. He inquired of their location, which was school, as far as I knew. Agent X and a police officer immediately headed to the high school. I thought this would scare the three boys. Being pulled out of class by the FBI should scare anyone.
I gave Agent Y the other names and sat down on the curb with those in charge, including Sue Ann, (whatever!) to talk about the next steps. They radioed the special task force on the house porch telling them to hold off on entering the premises until they hear from Agent X.
Again, my youth ministry brain kicked in and I thought I knew what the strange white powder was. I asked if I could make a suggestion. They ignored me. The special task force wanted to go in and look around since they had suited up in their snazzy Hazmat suits. In they went, and I could hear the report coming in over the radio.
“Confirmed light white powdery substance all over floor and door handles. Foot prints leading out the door also white.”
Agent Y finally decided that he would listen to me. I suggested, “While they’re in there, could they check the fire extinguishers to see if the pins are missing or if they’ve been discharged.” Agent Y gave me a look that plainly said, “You think we haven’t thought of that?” He relayed the message anyway and the message came back: “All pins are in place.” I kindly suggested that the youth might have put the pins back in place.
At this point, I was told that my assistance was no longer needed, but to please stay where I was.
A call came in from Agent X. They had interrogated all three boys separately and their stories almost agreed. I learned later that Sam had taken creative liberties related to the story to protect his innocence (or guilt). They had removed the pin from a fire extinguisher and gently squeezed the handle. The fire extinguisher had released a big cloud of smoke (or powder). They freaked out, put the pin back in place, and ran out the door.
Everyone was packing up and I was informed of what happened with zero acknowledgements that I had been correct in my theory or helpful with their investigation. Instead, I got a lecture on how many government resources were spent on this incident and how I needed to do a better job keeping an eye on the youth.
My senior pastor arrived after a good night’s rest, completed shower, and shave. I still looked half put together from running out the door. We had a long talk about what happened and the severity of the situation and we made a game plan for how to address it with the boys and their parents. At the time, I was at a large church, so the senior pastor was unfamiliar with the families. I shared some of the challenges these boys and their family situations as I have experienced them.
We decided to meet with each young man and his parents one at a time to check their stories and to look for signs of repentance. We would determine what punishment or our response after meeting with them.
Jim and Jamie and their parents arrived at the church. We met with each of them and had them tell the story. They were clearly telling the truth, which was probably an after effect of the FBI interrogation. They showed remorse.
Sam and his dad finally showed up. Sam had a different story blaming the other two. His story did not hold water, but his dad backed him up. The conversation got pretty heated between the senior pastor and Sam’s dad. Everyone finally settled down and they left.
Senior pastor and I talked about what to do next. He felt that the boys should respond with some community service at the church. He wanted them to understand the seriousness of what had taken place. (It’s probably important to note that this incident occured only three months after 9/11 during all the anthrax scares.)
I expressed that I was confident that the boys had no idea fire extinguisher powder would be mistaken for a deadly substance and that although they caused me headaches much of the time, I thought the FBI scare was sufficient. (Sue Ann had also given her two (or 20!) cents on what the boys’ punishment should entail.) The senior pastor settled on 10 hours that I was to supervise. Sam got 20 hours for lying, and the senior pastor wanted me to get Sam’s dad involved, too!
Back in the shower, tired, and not about to answer the phone.
What did I learn?
- My senior pastor could laugh as well as be an enforcer when it came to our students doing dumb stuff.
- It’s important to have a relationship with all of the maintenance staff that encourages them to call you before freaking out.
- The over-controlling staff person is not going to help you in these situations; seek help from someone above them.
- Finish your shower, shave, and get fully dressed, even in an emergency. You don’t know how many meetings you may have to go to.
- You do not want to be responsible for supervising 40 hours of community service. Find a different method.
- Be nice to the FBI. You might need them in the future. I had to get their help almost a year later and talked again with Agent Y, but that’s a story for another day.
How did it work out?
- Jamie and Jim did about six hours of their 10 before I excused the rest. I did get good one-on-one time with both of them that was significant in our relationship from then on.
- Sam did about two hours. He quit coming to youth group which was a blessing in some ways, but he will always be one of those kids that I wish I had tried harder with. His life was difficult over the next two years, and at one point his dad reached out to me, but my relationship with Sam was not strong enough to allow for any help.
- My senior pastor and I laughed for years about the whole deal.
What I would do differently now that I know what I know?
- Finish my shower and get fully dressed.
- Look for ways for the punishment to not be my responsibility.
- Stay on Sam. He needed the church the most.
Do you have a “so crazy it must be true” youth ministry story? Share it below…and change the names to protect the innocent (or the guilty).