“Hey, walk for Christ!” shouted a loud voice in the hallway outside the door to my office where I served as a high school chaplain.
Even though I couldn’t see him, I knew it was the student council spiritual representative, Jeremy, bellowing down the hall, greeting everyone he met with those four words. A huge smile inched across my face, joy filled my heart, as I pictured the eleventh-grader’s high fives and smiling face.
Jeremy had spent long hours organizing our high school pilgrimage walk, entitled Walk for Christ, for Justice for the Poor, to raise money to help our brothers and sisters who were in great need of clothes, food, education and shelter. Our school would join 56 other schools walking eight kilometers to create awareness for those less fortunate, particularly in developing nations.
Jeremy’s primary goal was to motivate every single student in the school to attend this walk.
This young man’s choice to substitute “Walk for Christ” for his usual “hello” revealed his willingness to take a stand for those in great need. He allowed his faith in God to come alive as he shouted out his beliefs down the halls, in the cafeteria, and classrooms of our school.
I admired him tremendously and witnessed his campaign prove to be a huge success. Hundreds of students came out in droves to walk, raise awareness, and help financially. His enthusiasm was infectious and his untiring ability to motivate people through morning announcements, assemblies and in classrooms, touched my heart. His organizational skills astounded me. He never wavered in his abilities to provide sign-up lists in our main office or fundraising applications to sign, and find staff volunteers to help with buses.
Watching Jeremy oversee this event, I witnessed Jesus’ words come alive when He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)
Okay, sure, teens were not little children, but as a new chaplain, I discovered, if given the opportunity, God always revealed to young people the right things to do and say, along with the organizational skills needed, to achieve their goals. I also felt they were not often given the chance. It was easier and faster for the adult to do the work themselves and just assign young people jobs or roles. However, I witnessed firsthand that the kingdom of heaven truly did belong to them and often they required only one thing – that adults step aside and allow them the chance to share their God-given dreams, etched across their hearts.
So… I opened up my own heart wider and learned to trust, listen, and believe.
When first hired, I believed my job was to guide young people into a deeper commitment to their faith. I had big plans of organizing exciting youth rallies, thoughtful retreats, and inspirational Masses.
I quickly discovered that it was not I who taught them, but they who taught me. There was only one requirement – that I allow it to happen.
In the early years of my ministry, sadly, a student passed away. Holding a memorial service for her and organizing a school-wide Mass was daunting. It would have been easier for me to just call up a local priest to officiate and hand out readings. However, I had listened for days to this young girl’s loved ones as they gathered in my office and shared memories. I saw their great love for her, took a leap of faith, and asked them to organize her memorial.
Immediately, their sorrowful eyes twinkled, ideas flowed, and working along with the priest and myself, they created a beautiful tribute to their friend filled with her favorite flowers, words of love, and a eulogy of hope. It not only honored their friend but their faith in God’s healing powers. Empowering them allowed them to express their feelings and execute something tangible for their friend, and a sense of peace flowed through the school.
Still, the process of “letting go” was not easy to do, especially when I was officially in charge. Often, I walked a tightrope of leading and listening, especially when I knew that sometimes their ideas might not work. Wanting them to succeed, I discovered that honesty rooted in kindness and love was the answer. For instance, when a group of students organized icebreaker activities that I knew might not work with the large group they were dealing with, I shared my concerns. What ensued were lively, respectful discussions that resulted in all of uniting and compromising to create the best possible solutions that worked well.
In my early days of trust, I was often scurrying around, nervous, and prayed often for courage, until I ultimately trusted in Jesus’ words, “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:16) Not my light, but theirs, for I quickly discovered that when teenager’s shone, they created masterpieces that were far more meaningful than any I could ever imagine.
I was deeply touched and humbled by their enthusiasm, hard work, and commitment to their causes – way more than if just following my instructions. When in charge, encouraged, and empowered, they were truly invested, especially when fundraising or creating awareness for people in need.
The heart of a teenager is filled with such promise, and I learned to trust the goodliness and Godliness in each one I encountered. I strived to really listen and allow them opportunities to be creative, try new ideas, and experiment. I learned to be open and less judgmental.
Teenagers awed me – every single day. Knowing people listened and their voices were welcomed, they ran with it, appearing in my office or greeting me in the halls with prayers they’d written to be used for morning prayer, fundraising ideas to help others, and quiet mentions of fellow students in need. They let me know who couldn’t afford school trips or graduation fees or was in desperate need of food and clothing, and we were able to reach out to ease their burdens.
My trust in them continued to grow, as I became more of a cheerleader – urging them to express themselves and become bright beacons of hope – strong messengers of God’s love, kindness and compassion. Their nucleus of love shone forth as they gave from their hearts.
Every day I continued to thank them for teaching me to quiet my heart, learn to trust, stand back and allow them to shine.
My own faith grew in leaps and bounds and I thank God that I was truly blessed by the special gift of every student I met.