My reflection on the first week working with the inner city kids of Toronto.
The Not-So-Warm Welcome
I looked down at the defiant nine year old that stood in front of me, one hand on her hip. She was Jamaican descent, hair braided into tight cornrows, lips pursed and eyebrows raised. I had never seen so much sass packed into one little girl.
"Jo-Jo won't be there, she finished her internship. I'm your new leader!"
I attempted to share the slowly withering excitement I had, but this little girl would have none of it. She snapped her fingers in oh-no-you-didn't fashion, turned on her heel, and strutted away as brazenly as a nine year old could strut.
I didn't know whether to giggle or sigh at the reaction of Lexie - one of the young girls I would be working with this year. It was obvious from the beginning that among the other 8-10 year old girls, Lexie was the leader of the wolf-pack, and I was pretty sure she saw me as a tasty rabbit she would devour at any moment.
I was slightly intimidated, though the intimidation I felt sprung mainly from shock. I had been informed that the children I would be working with would most likely be different from any others I had worked with in the past, but I didn't realize just how incomparable they really were. Having counselled various ages at a summer camp for the past four years, I figured I had a good handle on dealing with kids. But the difference between mainly small-town rural kids and big-city urban children was mildly appalling.
Teaching to Trust
This, however, was a totally new experience. For these children, trust wasn't simply given out free of charge. Trust, respect, willingness...it all came with a price. In all honesty though, I can't say that I blame them. For the children of the Warden Woods Community, nothing is consistent. You're ignored one day, you're targeted the next. What is okay one day deserves a slap across the face the next. Promises are broken, people come and go. Trust in anyone except yourself is foolish.
This fact makes my job, and that of all the other interns, rather difficult. It's not easy establishing a meaningful, lasting relationship with children who have decided that relationships are not meaningful, and they don't last. I had no idea how to go about altering this mindset they have developed, so I resorted to the one and only technique that I know works without fail: love.
Passing the Test
But we were encouraged by our supervisors who insisted that this was simply a phase. "They are testing you," they said with a smile. Well that much is obvious, I thought. I felt like a rubber band that the kids were stretching and pulling to see how much it would take before I snapped and went shooting off in the opposite direction. By the end of the third day with the children, it seemed it would be impossible to ever establish anything more than a surface level relationship with the kids. But I was determined to love them regardless; to pass their tests and show them that no matter what they did, I would love them anyways. That with every step they took away from me, I would take two steps towards them, arms outstretched with love.
"Don't just pretend to love others. Really love them." (Romans 12:9a)
Not all Rainbows and Butterflies
Unconditional love is what these kids need, and it's what I'm determined to give them. It's what everyone needs...the cashier drudgingly ringing through your items, the middle-aged man falling asleep on the subway, the kid in the back of the classroom who makes obscene remarks. The co-worker you can't stand, the girl you always pass in the hall on the way to chemistry. The woman in front of you in line, the man behind you on the escalator. Every single person on this planet wants love. Every single person on this planet needs love.
Your Purpose Isn't a Mystery
"Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples - when they see the love you have for each other." (John 13: 34-35)
How do I know this? Because you have no other purpose in life except to love. It's really all it boils down to. How easily distracted we are! How easily we forget our purpose! Praise be to God whose love for us is never distracted.
Let's be real here: I'm not cut out to love these kids. I'm probably the worst choice of person called to love unconditionally. Good thing it's not my love that I'm giving them.
"We love each other because He loved us first." (1 John 4:19)