When I decided to go to Guatemala, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Sure, I knew that I’d be working hard in a foreign land. I figured that the sleeping conditions would be uncomfortable. And the people of Guatemala would be poor. Most of my thoughts and preconceived ideas were focused on Guatemala and its people. For the most part, I felt prepared for this new experience.
What I didn’t expect or consider was the interaction that I would have with the teenagers who came on this trip. When we left for our trip, I barely knew the 20+ teenagers who went on the trip. I remember gathering for our team building meetings before the trip started and for our bus trip to the airport. I wondered how in the world I would relate to these kids who were all born after I graduated from college. And I wondered how they would relate to me a relative stranger and an “old guy” to boot.
When we flew from Houston to Guatemala city, I sat between a window and one of the teens – Steve. On this two and a half hour flight, Steve hardly said two sentences to me. My pre-trip wonderings were being confirmed. We got off the plane after our minimal conversation, and I didn’t interact with Steve much until the next afternoon.
I did my best to learn the names of the teens as quickly as possible. There were three different guys named Steve on the trip which made my learning process extra challenging. On our first work day, Steve from the plane was wearing a red shirt, so he soon became “Red Shirt Steve.” I ended up calling him “Red Shirt Steve” for the rest of the trip even when he wasn’t wearing a red shirt. On the job site, Red Shirt Steve and I worked together to pour the concrete floor and to install the wood siding on the sides of the house. I learned that Steve is a soccer player, a senior in high school, and a hard worker.
Our interaction increased as the week went along. Red Shirt Steve slept on the roof with a few of the leaders and a couple of other guys three of the nights. As the lights were turned off in the compound and the overall noise level decreased, it was interesting to hear more about these kids. I learned that Red Shirt Steve was interested in becoming a youth pastor. I learned a little bit about his family.
I ran with Red Shirt Steve one morning, and I watched him play games with the other kids. He’s clearly a great athlete and a fun guy to be around. I couldn’t believe that this was the same guy who said two sentences to me on the plane ride at the start of the week.
Getting to know teenagers is kind of like peeling an onion. There are so many layers. It takes time and commitment to get to the center. I had similar experiences with many of the other students on the trip. I learned that each of these teenagers have a story that needs to be heard. I discovered that most of the teenagers need adults like me in their lives – to listen to them, to interject into their lives, and to model for them what it means to follow Christ.
Since returning from the trip, I have started to help out with the weekly youth group gatherings. It’s not quite the same as being with the same smaller group of kids for 9 straight days around the clock, but it’s been pretty interesting to see these kids on a different level. I still see Red Shirt Steve from time to time. When we see each other, there are more than two sentences exchanged. I find out about school and soccer. He asks about my family. It’s pretty amazing!
Do you rub shoulders with any teenagers? How are you investing in relationships with students? Who invested in you when you were a teenager?