Youth Service Senior Reflection: Katelyn
April 10, 2011
My story may seem a little melancholy in comparison to the others you’ve heard today, but bear with me, it’ll get better, I promise.
So right of the bat I’ll tell you that while I really enjoy the company of others and I’m known as one of the loudest and even boldest of my friends, I am a complete introvert when it comes to being in new situations with new people and I don’t have my safety net of best friends to keep me on my feet—but back to the whole church thing.
So, here I am, eleven years old. My parents had never bothered to take me to a church before, so this was one of my first tastes of religion, other than being forced to sit through Catholic mass at the age of four when I was being babysat. It’s my first day at the church, and I want more than anything to fit in with these kids who have been together since kindergarten. I already have the general new situation trepidation—worrying about the kids I’ll meet and the teachers and the overall experience of being in a church, and my mom forces me to wear a dress. I’m at the peak of my prepubescent tomboy phase and my mom makes me wear a floral sundress to my first day at a new church. We open the doors to the sanctuary and I immediately spot the kids that I will be spending the rest of my Sundays with for the next seven years… in t-shirts and jeans. (Beat) Yeah, I was already worried.
Now, I eventually got to know the kids in my RE class (they got to see me in my normal attire), and I’d like to think that we were friends, but I had a new problem keeping me from fully assimilating. Every Sunday us kids would start out in the sanctuary, as kids still do, until a certain hymn during which we would leave for our classes. Pretty much my entire class would sit together during the service, and I would see them every week, one or two rows from the back on the right side of the church. I’d pass them with my parents and my mom would whisper to me:
“There’s that nice girl Emily” or “You know Gabriella, why don’t you go sit with her and the rest of your class?”
And I would think about it, but lingering in the aisle as I pondered it would just make me feel more conspicuous so I would usually resign to sitting between my mom and dad.
Now, it wasn’t that I was afraid of anyone in my class. On the contrary, like my mom said they were always really nice to me, they talked to me during class, and I enjoyed the time I spent with them on the playground after religious education had let out, but there was something about the idea of asking them to scoot over to make a little room on the pew that made me freeze up. I finally let my walls down a little when I started doing the musicals. I spent more time with some of my church friends outside the RE classroom and the then new to me of being onstage allowed me to push myself outside of my comfort zone, but it was okay because there were thirty other kids alongside me doing the same thing.
Alright. Enter ninth grade Katelyn. I had made it through OWL unscathed thanks to a friend who was already pretty knowledgeable about the subject who had joined the church, but that friend went off to boarding school the year after, and I retreated back into my shell. COA was a pretty miserable experience for me because of that. More than once I came home crying because nobody had talked to me, and my mom would ask me:
“Well, did YOU try to talk to anyone?”
And I’d sheepishly tell her, no I didn’t attempt to strike up conversation with anyone. I wanted so badly to be a part of the group, but I feared rejection so much that I never opened myself up to them.
I know, this sounds pretty bad, but remember, it’s gonna get better.
Sophomore year. My first year of Youth Group. I don’t remember expecting too much, but I had a feeling that this was going to be different from COA. I remember hearing a story that Bev told us about the Youth Group, when one girl lit a candle of concern at the end of the session that was deeply personal and started crying. Immediately, another youth grouper from a different grade who wasn’t friends with the girl outside of youth group got up and put her arm around the girl. That was what I was hoping for in my Youth Group experience—for a hand to grab onto to suddenly appear. For someone else to take the first step, to make the first move. I still would always show up fifteen minutes late to avoid the mingling time in the kitchen that I always found so awkward because I was still drawing back into myself—pulling away from others and yet expecting them to come towards me. My parents had stopped forcing me to come; I was still waiting for my hand.
The service trip to Mississippi is what finally brought me around. I got to spend a solid week in the presence of these people whose conversations became OUR conversations. I worked with them, laughed with them, on the last night of the trip I cried with them, but what was most important I realized the on last day of working. We had just finished reinstalling a woman’s floor that had been destroyed during Hurricane Katrina and the workers who put in a new floor had done it completely wrong and the whole thing had to be torn out and redone. We only had a certain number of days to finish it because the storage company holding her belongings would only keep them so long before throwing them out on the street. On the last day we had allotted to work on the project, we finished. The woman was so grateful, she made a traditional Cajun lunch and wouldn’t stop saying,
“God bless you. God bless you all.”
This changed everything for me. I got to be someone else’s hand to grab onto. I finally understood what my mother had told me about putting yourself out there. By pushing myself outside of my comfort zone (like I did with the musicals) I was able to create something beautiful with my youth group brothers and sisters, and that meant more to me than anything.
Being in YG has taught me many valuable lessons that I wish I had learned sooner. I found that independence doesn’t have to be at the cost of personal connections. That you can’t just sit back and wait for friends to come to you. Listen to your mothers: make the first move, show everyone why you’re beautiful—don’t leave them guessing.
To all the incoming youth groupers or kids questioning whether or not you want to join YG—Do it. This is a space for you to grow as a person, as I most certainly have, and for you to create your own community where you can play as big or as little a role as you want. After being so affected by the first service trip, I took it upon myself to be on the planning committee for the next trip to Tucson AZ that took place this past February break and it went amazingly. I got to open up to a whole new group of kids and for once I found it exciting instead of intimidating. I learned to trust and confide in people in a way that I was never able to before. I’m so glad that I didn’t quit coming when things got a little rough, because YG helped me get through far rougher times.
On another note, incoming youth: You DON’T have to be best friends with these people to know that this is a safe space. Take it from me—these may not be the people I sit at lunch with every day or get rides home with, but there is not one person in YG I wouldn’t feel comfortable with sharing my religious beliefs, spirituality, or just about anything with. Being a part of the church and YG is really a push-pull system. Your experience and what you take out of it hinges on how much you put into it. I spent my first five years at the church giving as little as possible, and because of that I took little satisfaction from the experience. Once I decided to put some effort into making my experience what I wanted it to be there was a huge turn-around in how I treated others and how I was treated. I have met so many people that I look up to and had so many great experiences with them. It was such a fantastic feeling going from someone on the outside looking in to a functioning part of the First Church community, and I’d like to thank Julie and everyone who is a part of the YG for that. I have taken the values that have been instilled in me and applied them to other parts of my life and I’m sure I’ll take them with me everywhere I go, as we all will when we take that final step out of the church and towards adulthood, but I’m sure we’ll all be back sooner or later.
I still skip the mingling time before YG, though. But that’s only because the snacks and ice cream they set out are just too tempting.