As another year of Sunday Night Youth Group starts up we are blessed to have a new group of youth, as well as our returning students, join us on a faith journey. And similar to most youth groups, some youth want and choose to be there while others are coerced or forced to attend by their parents. The youth in the latter group often open up eventually and start to have a good time, while others continue to sit in the sand on the shore, refusing to get their feet wet by the tide.
This year we have two brothers who are new to the program. One is a freshman and the other is a sophomore. Turns out their parents recently went through a divorce and they changed/transferred parishes. The younger brother seems content with being at youth group and is talkative with new people. The older brother...he's a different story. For the sake of this (public) blog, we'll call him Jonah, because I'm sure the only thing he wanted to do on the first night was run in the opposite direction.
Our first youth group was three weeks ago. Jonah sat by himself at a corner table with his arms crossed. If you asked him any questions, he would only shake or nod his head. We played some games and did ice breakers that night, but since there were 40 other youth present, I don't know how much Jonah participated. When the night was over I wasn't sure if he had a learning disability or if he just really didn't want to be there. As you already know, it was the latter. I wanted to make it my personal mission to break him. Ok, not in a bad way, but to make him feel welcome and to get him to realize that we want him at youth group.
Week two rolls around and Jonah, once again, sat at that corner table. During "gathering time" I approached him in another attempt to strike up a conversation. I asked about his week but didn't get much of a response. Then I told him I liked the cross he was wearing. He said "thanks." Then I asked where he got it from and he told me the parish they were previously at gave it to him as a going away gift. I was so amazed that he spoke that I became the speechless one. I was ecstatic! At the end of the night we learned that the small group that Jonah was in got him to laugh. Another joyous occasion!
I don't know all the details, but I think his mom told him to try out youth group and if he didn't like it at all, then he wouldn't have to keep going. Well he came back last night for our third week. This time I was at the sign-in table and greeted him with a big smile. We also did something different...we split all the youth into groups and asked that they go to their assigned table right away for dinner (instead of eating with the same people they always eat with). We want the youth to get to know each other better and we think it worked quite well. Jonah actually went to his assigned table (and asked where it was). I don't know how involved he was in the meal conversation, but I'd like to hope he was involved a bit. During Br. Ron's talk, Jonah was very engrossed in the story about St. Joseph of Cupertino. I had Jonah in my small group for the discussion questions. I couldn't get a response from my questions except for head nods, shakes, and shrugs. But once we started talking about Homecoming words came out of his mouth. I also found out he likes baseball. At the end of the night I thanked him for coming and told him I was glad he came out. I also made just a random comment, "oh, that's where your name tag is!" (since it was on his pants and not his shirt) and he actually smiled. On the inside I definitely looked like this:
So then I was thinking...I'm trying to make Jonah feel extremely welcomed and that he is wanted here at youth group...but we should be doing that for every youth! In small ways we do, but we should go out-of-the-way for every youth, not just those who don't want to be there. Youth are looking for community and for a place to belong. We should be welcoming each and every youth and thanking them for coming and telling them that we are happy they came out that night. I do a general "thank you, glad you came" thing, but we need to personalize it. I'll be sharing these reflections with the youth group team and I hope that together we can put fort an amazing effort at making each youth feel like they are wanted there on Sunday nights, whether they already know it or not. While it helps to have awesome lessons, fun games, and engaging praise and worship, sometimes the most important things at youth group are the small things: feeling welcomed, laughter at a joke, bonding that happens over dinner. By creating a safe space for our youth, we'll get them to come back and to eventually open up.