As I looked on in the tight hall of the Beech Grove Baptist Church, I believed my lips as I stated these sentences: “Be careful what you listen to. If you’re constantly hearing that stuff, eventually you might do it, too. Be careful. You might imitate what you hear. “
Because I had been selected in prior years to teach Sunday school at another church, my aunt asked me to teach a group of children at Beech Grove for Vacation Bible School. It was a Thursday. We were in our fourth night of a five night process. As I looked at the disgust on their faces, I encouraged myself. We had discussed “What music inspires you?”
I gave each student a sheet of printer paper and a pencil. I told them to write down what genre of music they enjoyed. Then, they were to write a song they liked and a short two sentence summary of why they liked that song.
When I collected the papers back and continued conversation, I realized that all but two students had written a rap song down. The tracks I saw scribbled down on each page were either artists I had not heard of, or rappers who cursed openly in many of their compositions.
They are young. And when you are in middle-school (or any school for that matter) you need to fit in. There was one exception, Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road. The person who written it down seemed embarrassed because Lil Nas X had just recently said he was gay. Even that inspired song stirred a debate among us because it was not exactly appropriate for children. Nas’s reference to “sports bras and boobies” is anything but light and angelic. We had been talking all week about stories in the bible that were supposed to encourage these kids to respect and love themselves and one another.
I was sure they were influenced by their friends. And I wondered with all our talk about “letting our light shine”, did we know what light was? So I asked them: You all do know that you’re inside a church, right?
Could you try writing down some gospel songs instead? They balked at my suggestion. It was not an odd question, but I guess no kid wants to look weak in a room full of intimidating personalities. I thought about how many times kids and adults settle for fitting in versus actually respecting themselves and asking deeper questions. Dark energy seemed to pull us apart and stuff us (teachers and students) in corners.
There is an invisible bridge between what we read, hear, and speak. And facts and experience reflect that when we don’t stop and analyze what we are influenced by, we miss the larger goal of respecting ourselves.
I had cancelled important dialogues with a therapist and my best friend to accomplish three goals. I wanted to educate people, tell stories and serve Jesus.
I surrendered my own selfish plans for a larger goal. I think the group of juniors understood me. While I am not over the moon for teaching, I am always stoked about learning from other people. I see VBS, the summer school version of “revival”, as another chance to grow my own personal experience by observing others. So I was distressed when I realized that these kids were not thinking about how their inspirations could lead them away from “light-shining”.
Working with youth, teens, and the larger young adult population is wonderful because I am re-capturing missed chances I passed up in my young adulthood.
I guess as I taught them, I realized that we cannot give away what we don’t do for ourselves.
When you are a worker that never stops to say you are tired, people who exist only to use what you give, will let you work yourself into the ground. I guess I believed that the kids might have one good gospel song they remembered part of the words to. But maybe I was mistaken. Maybe, the image of the black male rapper is so candy-coated. Maybe it is so enticing and so forced upon young people that we cannot help but see it.
After the tension settled and the kids vented their frustration about the opening exercise, I made some suggestions and began teaching them about Paul and Silas.
Paul and Silas were men who praised God even after being beaten and imprisoned. The students seem shocked when I told them that Paul and Silas lived in a time when acknowledging Jesus meant death and torture. I tried to encourage them that faith is a large part of being a “light.”
I guess educating these children has been its own therapy. Of course, I’ve had to block out many things to see it like that. I’ve had to ignore pockets of selfishness from depressed young adults. I’ve had to ignore triggers from angry siblings. I have had to hold my tongue because I believe that the children are more important than my angry spoiled family members.
God can let you have your own Paul and Silas moment. But I think God is smart enough to know that humans are stubborn enough to choose people and things that deny them self-respect.
If we want our lights to shine, we’ve got to ask questions earlier. I guess I’m thankful that when I was 9, I knew that respecting me meant learning kindness. I wanted to be kind even though I knew early that Cerebral Palsy made me different. I guess I know that letting your light shine is also knowing when people and things are about to punch your “inner light” out.