It’s Saturday night and I’ve been in the company of 70+ teenagers for the past 24 hours. It’s a weekend called “Happening” for high schoolers, and we’re here at our camp and conference center, staying in the old, creaky Powell Hall, once the home of an orphanage but temporary hostel to summer camps, spiritual weekends and scrappy memories for over half a century.
During free time this afternoon, a dozen of us hiked down to the river, snaking below and past the gentle ridge that Powell and the rest of the center sits atop. The land between the ridge and the river is still rented to a farmer and the fields have tiny green tufts marching along in rows parallel to the flow of the Monocacy. The frigid February wind is piercing as usual, with little but our bodies to slow it down.
It’s above freezing, but not by much—enough though to thaw the saturated ground and create a couple of mud pits on the path toward the river. I am grateful for my waterproof hiking boots, but many of the youth are not so prepared. By the time we return up the hill to regather with the whole group, a bucket’s worth of mud is slathered around the bottoms of our footwear.
We stopped on the porch of the old farmhouse that’s attached to the back of Powell, peeling off our shoes and, as necessary, socks as we ventured back in the sheltered communal warmth of the weekend program. We were determined to leave the mud behind.
The remainder of the afternoon was filled with talks, small group time, and personal reflection. We were invited to write a letter of forgiveness to someone as an act of reconciliation. Our feet were ceremonially washed. Prayers were offered for healing.
At my station in the chapel, person after person came to me and offered a quiet prayer request in my ear: “Healing for my dad who has cancer.” “Recovery from a death” from an adult leader. “Struggling with believing in Jesus.” “Loneliness, confusion and uncertainty.”
The muck that these young people wade through is daunting. It takes me back to the muck I traversed when I was their age: bullying at school, an alcoholic father at home, and times of hopelessness and uncertainty. Being a teenager can suck in so many ways. The muck can be crippling.
Down close to the river, we all helped each other navigate the path, getting mucked up nonetheless, but doing it together. Everyone made it through. No one was left behind. Some fared better than others, but we made it through the mud.
It is a community of faith that has pulled me through the mucky moments in my life, believing in me, having faith in me when I lacked it in myself. This weekend is providing an opportunity for me to give back, to be part of the cosmic reconciliation that helps restore, refresh and realign these young people’s lives, not necessarily to guide them down a pre-determined path, but to be there with them when they encounter the mud. But the faith and the courage and the determination that I hear in their voices gives me strength and hope for the world we’re passing onto them. May God give them the shoes and the companions to journey steadily through the muck that lies ahead.