Wise, gentle, and tough as nails

Rev. Daughtry's reflections on his ministry to Tupac Shakur show us the patience and tolerance for ambiguity required in the task of ministering to those wrapped up in what some call the "thug life." These young adults have carved out a precarious foothold for themselves on the razor’s edge between destructive rebellion and positive revolution; many, while having legitimate intentions of becoming freedom fighters for the benefit of their communities, haven’t quite developed the ability to extricate themselves fully from the madness of the streets—not without the help of others anyway.

For Christians, the challenge of working with street youth is to require from them the highest level of personal behavior, while at the same time, leaving the door open to them—even when they fail to live up to what we expect and know is possible. This is truly a situation in which we must live up to Jesus’ call to be wise as serpents, but gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16).

The modus operandi of those who minister to youth at risk must first of all be love and compassion. Grace is a rare commodity on the streets, yet it should always be a defining characteristic of Christian ministry. This doesn’t mean we should be pushovers. Street youth have learned from experience to be as tough as nails, and the same is required of those who work with them. Especially in the inner city, young people learn at an early age that it’s survival of the fittest on the streets, and they need those with more experience to set the standards of cooperation and human community.

As those close to teen-agers anywhere know, young people at this age push every limit they’re given and crave to explore the extremes. They’re apt to live in harmony one day and chaos the next. What they need most is a strong sense of stability—even when this is found in another person. For many youth at risk whose families are non-existent or in disarray, the presence of a pastor or mentor is often the only source of consistency in their lives.

We must have faith in these young people, yet when we fail to see any progress we too often stop believing that it’s possible for those involved in the madness of the streets to change their lives or behavior. We give up on them, forgetting God’s own tenacity with us in spite of our failings and the lessons we have had to learn over and over again. We need to remember that the fruits of our labor with these struggling youth may never mature while we are in their lives.

MINISTERING TO YOUTH on the edge compels us to do our own "spirit work" and deal in an active way with our own inconsistencies and shortcomings. Those fighting to escape the madness need us to be dependable, fulfilling our own obligations as we expect them to fulfill theirs. These young people need us to tell them the truth, even when it is hard for them to hear it; they also need us to reaffirm our commitment to be with them in their struggle to do the right thing. Once we answer the call to walk with these young people, our own conversion process and spiritual growth becomes linked with theirs.

With young people, it is often more effective to speak of behavior in terms of real-life consequences rather than morality. While moral arguments can often be dismissed by those operating in another paradigm, it’s harder to reject practical advice: "If you deal drugs and get caught, you’re going to do time in jail. I know you don’t want that. If you mess around with sex, you’re going to have a baby before you’re ready. If you settle your differences with violence, it’s going come back on you or someone you love." These kids have seen enough of life on the streets to know when you’re telling them the truth or not.

Though we might not be able to approve of their behavior, it is important to respect the young person for who they are and the struggle they face. Many of these youth feel that society will do all it can to bring them down, and they are confronting tremendous odds simply to survive. We must expect young people to live up to their highest aspirations, not down to society’s assumptions. We need to be there to back them up.

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"Wise, gentle, and tough as nails"
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