DNA: Discipleship, Nurturing, Accountability. Three vital aspects of ministering to teenagers, of earning the right to speak into their lives, and of living out the call of Christ to love them. DNA that is as vital to mentoring relationships as the biological counterpart that shares its acronym.
This year, the Secondary chaplaincy team at AAI is switching things up, listening to feedback from students and trying a new way of reaching kids with the Gospel. As is often the case at Christian schools, Alliance has required students to attend weekly chapels for probably the past 80 some years of its existence. When the demographics of the student body changed about 6 years ago from being all missionary kids to being primarily non-missionary, Ecuadorian students, the responses and reactions of the study body to Biblical teachings changed, too. While many of our students are Christians, a growing number are not, and it was quickly becoming apparent that these kids were not interested in sitting in a mini-church service every week about a God they haven’t yet come to know.
And so, DNA Groups were born. In place of most of the weekly large-group chapel times, teachers have volunteered to lead small groups every week with a particular group topic or activity as the catalyst for relationship. So far, the students seem to love it! Students got to choose from group themes that vary from sports and working out to cooking, reading, martial arts, video games and technology, and chess and board games. One group is even learning slight-of-hand and “magic” tricks from their staff leader! And in the midst of it all, relationships are being built. Disciples. Hearts are being fed. Nurturing. And lives are being challenged. Accountability.
Last year we often mentioned the small group of students who met at our house every couple weeks for a group called Peer Helpers. It was a group geared towards training and supporting mature, grounded students in helping their friends through difficult situations. They were a great group and they really seemed to enjoy and grasp the topics we wrestled with together. This year, I decided to do things a little differently and try Peer Helpers as a DNA group during the school day. Suffice it to say, this has been a bigger change and challenge than anticipated! There are 6 high school girls in the group and after the first couple weeks together it became clear that the group was comprised far more of students with high needs themselves than of students who are mature enough to effectively help others. Three have fairly significant mental health and learning issues and one has become used to cycling in and out of friendships as she does hurtful things that push people away.
This is requiring a pretty significant overhaul of the group content and format! I’ve struggled with feeling frustrated, disappointed, and somewhat lost, as one week they stare back at me, refusing to engage, another they’re so chatty they can’t seem to focus, and another they struggle to understand the most basic of interaction skills. God has really been challenging me to give up my vision for the group and allow these particular students’ needs to guide our times together. This has been difficult, because I really do believe in the Peer Helper model. But as I’ve done so, I’ve been able to see in their eyes a need for belonging. A need to know they are worth something even when their peers don’t treat them like it. A need to learn some very basic skills to make it through life themselves.
Last week, our fourth week meeting, I felt like we had finally found a bit of a groove together. I decided to try to build group cohesion as well as promote self-exploration by having them start making collages of their lives: past, present, and future. We’ll use them to share parts of ourselves with each other, focus on asking one another meaningful questions, and practice listening and hearing each other. Watching them interacting as they started their collages, I noticed the girl who is usually too terrified to talk actually responding when others spoke to her. I noticed the girl with Aspergers who is usually shut out of conversations finding relevant comments to make to her peers. I noticed myself feeling a growing compassion for each of them and a greater willingness to be patient and let our group be God’s group. After all, He’s famous for choosing the people others usually reject.
It still feels like we have a long road ahead of us, but I hope and pray I can find ways to connect with them and to help them connect with each other and the God who created them. Through Discipleship. Nurturing. Accountability. And plenty of God-given patience along the way.
September 29, 2013 Ecuador