Conventional youth ministry wisdom says you probably shouldn’t walk a group of high school students through the red light district of Tijuana. You also shouldn’t make them walk across the border each way, especially when re-entering the United States requires waiting in a four hour line in the August sun, with 1,500 people ahead of you in line. And you would certainly never, ever, orient the “mission” or “work” or “service” of the trip around hours of meeting with people, hearing their stories, engaging in conversation, asking questions, and learning to emulate the kind of peacemaking posture that Jesus practiced.
You wouldn’t, until you did, and then you’d never be the same again.
From the beginning, pitching an experience to students and parents where we would go to San Diego and Tijuana and immerse ourselves into the stories of people affected by the immigration crisis was incredibly daunting. My own doubts skyrocketed as the trip came closer and closer, and I kept getting barraged by texts from students: “What are we going to be doing exactly?” or “But aren’t we going to do something?”
Here’s where my internal voice started screaming, “What have I done?!” But there’s no turning back from this crazy thing that maybe the Spirit led us to try.
My response – “We’re going to go be with people, learn their names, immerse into their stories, practice curiosity, contend on their behalf, and imagine what complete restoration looks like for the immigration conflict” – didn’t do much for solidifying our “mission” in the minds of my concrete-thinking young people.
Our student ministry has a tradition of mission trips that are primarily service-based, and they have participated in some really great projects over the years. We have a rich history of voluntourism – going new places to volunteer and then play tourist. Many, many good things can come of these experiences, and they can be life changing.
For our students, it was quickly becoming another program to add to their college applications, or simply a way of going some place cool and doing good so they could feel more heroic, accomplished, and self-less. It was just one more itinerary crammed into a summer full of camps, vacations, opportunities to volunteer through school programs, and as we re-evaluated our approach the most important question kept coming up: “What will be most meaningful and helpful way to form students in the way of Jesus?”
I’m not the first person to say that we underestimate teenagers. But I will say it again: We underestimate teenagers when we assume they need to be constantly occupied with tasks, entertained by everything, protected from honest questions and shielded from actual engagement with the most marginalized and vulnerable of society.
And so we did nothing. We didn’t build houses or run a vacation Bible school.
We met with local people working for peace on behalf of immigrants, women and men who are contending for justice and imagining what the kingdom of God looks like on earth as it is in heaven. We ate dinner with folks who had just been deported away from their families and livelihoods in the U.S. We cried with a legally blind grandmother who will likely never see her sons or grandchildren again. We were awed by one man whose sacrifice and love reconnected over 40,000 deported children with their families in Mexico and Central America. We were terrified to hear a U.S. border patrol agent describe how he systematically profiles people along the border. We played soccer and ate pizza with teenage boys seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing death threats and gang violence in their home countries.
We did nothing except be present enough to listen, learn, weep, and imagine alongside beautiful human beings who long for peace. And my students have sworn mutiny if we ever go back to the way our trips have been before. Every one of us will never be the same again, because we have seen the faces the world has forgotten, and are compelled by love to wage peace for all our sakes.
May we consider the sacred work of being present and doing nothing as we seek to form our students and our selves into the kind of people who follow in the way of Jesus.