Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. — 1 Peter 3:9
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.—1 Peter 3:13-17
It was finally the end of a particularly frustrating and disheartening night for the BreakAway Junior High ministry at Orrville (Ohio) Mennonite Church. What we had planned as a fun, laid-back night to let loose with some dodge ball games in the local elementary school gym proved to be anything but relaxing.
Our children’s and youth ministries bring in a number of youth from outside our congregation through outreach, and the community kids we attract often bring with them a unique set of challenges. This night, our usual gang of sixth grade boys had tested everyone’s patience to the limit, demanding attention through being disruptive and experimenting with how much disrespect it would take to get a rise out of the volunteer leaders and other kids in the group. As a final consequence, I made the rule that everyone who had received warnings that night would not have a snack.
*Tyler, who had been invited for the first time that night, was angry because a leader had taken away the lighter he had brought with him; it was to be given back when he went home. Tyler was on the “no snack” list, but he pushed into the kitchen demanding his lighter back. After one of our staff had returned it to him he began flicking it defiantly, making motions with the flame as if he intended to set something on fire.
At that point I firmly took it back from his hand and told him that for safety reasons he needed to be outside of the church before he would get it back. He made it clear that he was not very happy about the arrangement, but he knew I meant business and stomped out the door.
Once we got outside, I handed the lighter back to him as promised. He started making threats and flicking the lighter, holding the flame close to the wall of the church building (which happens to be brick), asking which car was mine so that he could slit the tires, etc. But what he wasn’t counting on was that I can face personal threats without batting an eye. A number of the previous ministries which I had worked with through college had involved at-risk youth from some pretty difficult home situations. I had broken up street fights and taken some punches, so verbal threats were nothing new. I had learned to recognize when certain behaviors are aimed at getting a response—an attempt to test you and see how you will react.
My training and experience had taught me that the best way to deescalate a conflict situation of that nature is to not give any reaction, to just appear calm and unconcerned.
So after a while of just standing there quietly without interfering, I could see him starting to deflate. I stood leaning against the front doorway and began praying silently, “Father, I call your shield of protection upon this place; that any evil here right now would be sent away, it has no place here or in the life of this child.”
Right at that moment, Tyler took his lighter and threw it as high as he could onto the church roof. I stood shocked for a moment, and then said, “Just a minute ago that lighter was pretty important to you, and now you’ve just thrown it away?”
“It was out of fluid,” he said defensively, “what good is an empty lighter going to do me?”
I shrugged and said nothing; inwardly, I was laughing with the joy of how God sometimes chooses to answer our desperate prayers not only promptly, but with humor. But outwardly, I knew I had to act quickly if I wanted to take advantage of the fact that he had just been willing to talk to me, before he put the walls back up completely.
“What grade are you in, Tyler?” I asked, a first feeble attempt at opening communication with small-talk. He said it was “NOYB”—none of your business—and that he didn’t want to talk to me. Wrong-o, Tara, walls haven’t budged, but nice try.
“Okay, that’s fair,” I said as if it didn’t make the least bit of difference to me one way or the other, “you don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about.”
“Well, it’s not like I have anything that I don’t want to talk about,” he said, scuffing his shoe on the ground and avoiding eye contact.
I waited wordlessly for a few moments longer as he paced around, uneasy, still looking for something to take out his anger on. Ironically, he settled for our church’s Peace Pole.
Another message from my Father to add some wit and wisdom to the situation? “May peace prevail on earth …”
I watched without interfering as he repeatedly pulled it up out of its place in the ground, then slammed it back down into the hole again, watching the rainwater and mud that had gathered in the base splash up the wooden sides.
Then at some unexplainable prompting, despite the protests of my common sense judgment, a new question blurted out that jumped way beyond the small-talk, right to the core
“Tyler,” I said, “What makes you angry?”
Get real Tara. If he refuses to answer a simple factual question, he’s not going to open up to you about his feelings.
“Everything,” he said. The lessening of the tension in the air was almost palpable.
Whoa, did you hear that? He just opened the door a crack and invited you to take a step into who he is. Don’t blow this one, Tara. Take it easy, but don’t pass up the opportunity when it’s here. You might not get another. Just let him know he matters.
“Things at home; things at school?” I said.
“Everything. My whole life.”
He stopped trying to find something to destroy and walked back to where I was standing in the doorway. He leaned against the wall opposite from me—perhaps seeking some solid support as he felt his own inner walls beginning to weaken and crack.
“Was it always that bad, or do you remember a time when life wasn’t so bad?”
“No, it’s always been that way except …”
For the first time I saw a bit of the anger leave his face—a little light came into his eyes, which were no longer avoiding mine.
“Except at 6:45 yesterday,” he said, “because that’s when I met *Jack, Lenny and Dillan.”
How ironic: That same group of boys that had been causing our ministry volunteers so much frustration this year was perhaps the first thing that looked like “hope” to this lonely, angry boy—maybe the first to ever claim him as a friend, as a part of them, something he belonged to. Even more ironically, it was through those boys that he had this chance to connect with people who will try their hardest to love him for who he is and a chance to connect with the God who always has.
Then *Billy, another first-timer to our ministry who needed to walk home with Tyler, came out from getting his snack, and they prepared to leave. As they headed across the parking lot walking their bikes, I called out, “Thanks for coming tonight guys. We hope to see you next week. And Tyler, I’m really glad I got to talk with you.”
May peace prevail.
Tara Michelle Gerber is youth ministry coordinator for Orrville (Ohio) Mennonite Church.