What Happens When Students Feel Safe

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She stepped up to the microphone during the Monday night worship service and started to speak. “I didn’t know my dad until a few years ago when a man walked up to me and said, ‘So, I’m your father.’” During her first formative years, her grandfather held the family together and she loved him deeply. He loved Jesus, and tried to instill in his grandchildren faith and courage for the tough reality of their circumstances. But he passed away before she ever met her biological father.

Her father chose to take an interest in her life—and helped her smoke her first joint before she started high school. Her longing for an earthly father shaped her behavior during her formative years, yet left her angry and confused as his approval hinged on her acquiescence to things her grandpa had taught her were wrong.

“You’re nothing to me,” her father said at the beginning of the summer. “You’re not my daughter and I want nothing to do with you any more.”

Her revelation of hurt and betrayal shamed me, because many times I’ve felt impatience at her drama and frustration with the way she interacts with male students.

She shared with the crowd of 90 that she wants to graduate and go to college and do something positive with her life. Her leadership and act of bravery made what happened the next night possible.

But first, let me set the scene. Eighty-two students in grades 7-12 and 16 staff from two different schools met at Rocky Mountain National Park for a week of camping and outdoor education. The city kids and the rez kids and the insane adults that thought this sounded like a great idea.

But God stepped in and took our crazy plans and hopes and turned them into one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced. A moment when the rez kids said, “Yes!” to forgiveness.This act of forgiveness, confession and acceptance led to a Tuesday night miracle.

All week long, at the morning and evening worship services, students from the Tulsa school had shared a short speech about their walk with God as part of their school’s speech class curriculum. Our brave girl had joined the Tulsa students on Monday night to share her walk. On Tuesday, our last night, the final three students from Tulsa stepped forward to share their speeches.

One by one, students from our school stepped forward as well—forming a line that went from the back of our school bus backdrop to the door of the bus. The pastor said his last words while we watched in awe as the sun slipped over the mountains in a show of pinks and blue. The pastor invited the first student in line to come up and share.

He remembers the beatings his dad gave him on a regular basis—but he never remembered what he did to get into trouble. He’s mad at God because of the pain and betrayal he experienced from a young age.

She deals with the guilt of her younger siblings’ loss of a father—all because she turned in their dad, her stepfather, for raping her repeatedly over two years. Every time they cry, her mother turns to her and says, “It’s your fault that they don’t have their daddy.”

He doesn’t know what he thinks about God, and questions his existence. His parents neglected him because the siren call of alcohol trumped the natural nature of parenthood. His ‘friends’ invited him to join a gang. He joined, only to find out that the cost of joining included a severe beating and having his new posse urinate on him. He’s still searching for his identity.

She questioned God’s character when the doctors diagnosed her with a rare form of cancer on her birthday. She wanted to give up when the treatments and the pain seemed overwhelming—but a miraculous healing from a side complication—gallstones—showed her that God does exist and he does care for her.

By this time, the stars and inky sky wrapped a blanket around the brave students and enveloped the audience with a spirit of love. As the speakers stopped and struggled with their words and their stories, other students would call out, “It’s ok. We love you.”

A young man from Tulsa had joined the line, and shared how he struggles with anger at God and with the people that have bullied him throughout his life. Several students from both schools stepped forward to stand in solidarity and love as he struggled for words.

The next young man’s soft voice reached through the cold night with another story of anger and betrayal. He struggled to speak through the tears clogging his throat. This time, twenty or more students from both schools gathered around him—many of them with tears in their eyes. He finished his story in a whisper so quiet only those closest to him could hear his words.

The last young man stepped forward. He and his little brother survived for weeks on end on gravy—the only food he knew how to prepare as a seven-year-old. He never told anyone that their mom had left, nor how hungry they were because he loves her and wanted to protect her. They started stealing from the local grocery store in order to survive. Eventually, family members stepped in. One by one every student stepped forward to share his pain with him.

Only one of the students spoke of a conversion experience, but every unspoken word and feeling cried out for understanding and love from a yet-to-be known Savior.

We all share a deep need for others to know us fully and accept us despite our flaws, quirks and…

The students shared their stories of anger, betrayal and questioning the very existence of God because they felt safe. Safe in the embrace of nature. Safe in the embrace of the mountain top experience. Safe in the company of their classmates and new friends from another culture. Safe in the knowledge that they stood with fellow seekers and lifelong travelers. Safe in the love we adults try to shower them with on a daily basis whilst putting up with their shenanigans, disrespect and anger.

My heart filled and overflowed through my eyes. These kids, my kids—the newly met and the ones I’ve known for three years—they bear so many burdens. They handed me the greatest gift—to share their burdens with them. And while they continue their walk towards a Savior who shares in their suffering and grief, their stories cover my eyes with love-colored glasses.