The seasonally appropriate story of how one pre-teen’s crazy idea led to burnt corn and eight years of awesome memories…
I have a soft spot for wayward boys. I suppose I see my brother in all of them. Otherwise I would have dropped the middle school version of our church’s afterschool program after two sessions.
My Thursday group consisted of about half a dozen foul-mouthed in-town boys and two girls. I knew some of them from volunteering to do games when the pastor ran the program, but a separate day for middle schoolers was a new venture. They came there straight after school—a 5 to 10 minute run from the middle school—and they weren’t very teachable.
I only had them for an hour and at first I tried to stick with a lesson plan or create elaborate games and activities, but that tended to end in frequent disaster. There were a few bright moments and fun activities, but also a lot of days when I felt like a complete failure as a church youth leader. Seriously, I’d come speeding into town late as usual, AC/DC playing on the radio, smoking a cigarette, and wondering if I was really the right sort of person to be doing this. I fully expected God to smite me with lightning for most of that first year.
A frustrating month or so into the program, I had a small epiphany. I thought back to when I was that age. What did I want from adults? I realized I wanted someone to listen to me, not preach and teach. I was fortunate enough to have had several adults in my life who did listen and treated me like a human being even when I was in middle school. It made a huge and lasting impact on my young life. At first this realization sounded like a cop-out, but still it echoed true from my own turbulent middle school years. So most days we played games, ate snacks, and hung out, talking about whatever they wanted to talk about.
It worked. Turned out a safe place to hang out and talk was about the best thing I could give these kids. We talked about God on occasion, but let’s be honest. Real questions about real things only happen after you’ve built up some trust and rapport. So we also talked about their favorite television shows, middle school drama, bullies, being different, sex, their family lives, their hopes and dreams, anger, and a host of other topics in a way school guidance counselors can only dream of. We made a haunted house for trick-or-treat night, organized a Rummage Sale fundraiser, played tackle football, ping pong, LOTS of dodgeball, poker, and “I Doubt It;” we had scavenger hunts, and games around the village, played pranks on each other, and drank a lot of cheap soda pop. I yelled at them a lot, but I cared about them a lot too.
I also invited them to come up with their own ideas for activities. In retrospect that decision bordered on insanity. It also fostered a lot of ideas that lived across the border in Crazytown.
But they weren’t all bad ideas. John N. suggested we should have a Thanksgiving meal for our families—a Harvest Meal he called it. Everyone liked the idea. Everyone except me—well, the realistic part of me. There were just a few obstacles:
- If I can’t get these guys to focus on a 10-minute Bible lesson, how am I going to get them to cook a meal for a group of people?
- We had a $500 budget for the year, which has to cover the Wednesday grades 1-4 group too. That’s about $55/month and we spent twice that much the previous month for our community Haunted House.
- I had 2 helpers for the program who only did it because no one else would. And even they steered clear of the notoriously rowdy Thursday group.
So… no food, no budget, no helpers. No problem, right?
Oh, I forgot:
- Everyone agreed that it had to happen right before Thanksgiving, which meant it would fall on a Wednesday night when my grades 1-4 group was there. So they would have to be involved too. So now we’re talking 15 kids or more—most of them with attention spans the length of a teevee commercial.
But I still liked the idea—well, the crazy, unrealistic part of me did.
For one thing it belonged to the group. They had already taken ownership. And that’s worth a lot. For another, I thought it might be easier to get a volunteer for a one-day commitment than for a nine-month commitment. It was a great idea for connecting the congregation with these kids and their families, which was one of my big unspoken goals.
And of course, there’s that whole crazy faith thing. I had a strange notion that maybe God likes to help crazy unrealistic people trying to do meaningful and positive things. So I decided to put it in his hands and see if his people (i.e., our congregation) would help make it happen.
I flew the idea by Pastor Alan and he loved it. I knew he would. And more importantly I knew he would help out. That’s one volunteer.
I flew the idea in front of the church and made a list of food items. I got three more volunteers, a turkey, 100 baking potatoes, and a few other donations.
I sent a letter home to the GRIP families and I got two more volunteers, a ham, and a sweet $150 donation.
And what do you know. Things started to work out.
The GRIP Harvest Meal became a cherished annual event for the next eight years. Every year I got a little better at it: timing the food, finding jobs for everyone, sticking to the schedule, remembering the smaller details (like the best way to distribute the butter). The kids poked and wrapped baked potatoes, frosted cupcakes or cookies, made simple desserts (like boxed brownies and cheesecakes), mixed up green bean casseroles, heated up canned or frozen corn, set out the plates and utensils, and much more.
There were disasters to be sure. The year of the burnt corn was pretty bad. A bat got into the church basement one year during clean up. And once I made coffee while talking to someone and put in the grounds twice. It was a wee bit strong.
The best part for the kids was decorating the tables. The older kids set up the old, beat up church tables and then covered them with rolls of plain white paper. Then we sat out the salt and pepper shakers and lots of washable markers. All over the covered tables, the kids drew pictures of things they were thankful for while the adults did any last minute food things.
When the guests arrived, the kids greeted them and told them excitedly what they did to help. And then my favorite part. We prayed together. The first few years I had the kids write and say the prayer. Actually the first year, the prayer was a puppet show featuring a rap prayer. But eventually I created a little worksheet for families to write their own prayer together. “What are we thankful for this year… What do we need help with….” I’m increasingly aware that my family is one of few who still gather at a table for a meal each night. That made this exercise a thing of beauty to me.
So… God took this crazy idea and made some good things out it. Families talking together with their kids about the big things. Kids working together to create something for others that they can be proud of. People gathering together in community to share. Even a little entertainment some years, graciously provided by my increasingly less wayward and musically gifted brother.
When our new pastor showed up to help with his first Harvest meal, he emerged from the kitchen after carving the turkey and looked around in amazement. ‘Why, you’ve got more people here than we have on Sunday morning!’ he said. By that time we had 26 youth enrolled in the program and several congregation members who had come to enjoy being part of the night’s festivities. Even after catching the bad end of my high octane coffee, the pastor came back the next year (and worked to arrange funding for a paid assistant for the program).
I’ve been involved with a lot of big events in my life. Educational events and trade shows that filled huge convention halls with speakers and activities, and recently residencies and conferences featuring prominent names in literature. And in between there have been workshops, day-long and weekend-long events, worship services, and more. But there is no event I’ve been more proud of being involved in than my small town Harvest Meal.
In thanks for eight years of (mostly) tasty memories…
* The GRIP after school program is no longer active, but I know many of the seeds it planted are still growing. I am eternally thankful to Pastor Alan Smearsoll who convinced me to take the job (despite all of my lame excuses), and for all the volunteers the GRIP program had during my time there: community members, church members, and former GRIP students who came back to help (Logan and Taylor and even Matthias — all pictured at the top of the post). What a privilege it was to work with all these great youth and wonderful adult helpers!
I’m thinking especially of Leena Maki this fall, our 2012-13 assistant, who died earlier this year. I was blessed to have spent time with her in ministry and in friendship.