My husband and I have been church youth leaders for almost eight years—maybe that's longer than people should.
It's not that I don't love the job. There are times when we're coming home in our van and the whole vehicle bounces with the life of the kids in the back, singing and laughing and teasing. At moments like that I know there's nowhere I'd rather be. Sometimes the kids say some really moving things to Tom and me too—things that make us think we're being what we should be, people they can trust.
But when things fall apart like they did last week, I start to wonder if maybe it isn't time for the two of us to quit while weVe still got some heart left.
A youth service. It was Pastor Jed's idea. "We need to integrate the young people into our worship," he said. "It'll make the kids feel more a part of what's going on, give them some presence in worship." So Tom and I agreed to give it a try.
Gregg is a National Merit finalist who has been to Mexico on a summer mission program. All right, my husband and I thought, Gregg can preach. Nancy and Sharice sing like Amy Grant clones. Burt can play the organ—he's not always accurate, but we'll need someone. Use a few tenth graders for ushers. Some others to serve coffee and juice afterward. And we'll write a litany that involves a few more.
"What about deacons?" Tom asked. "We'll need kids to pick up the offering."
I hadn't thought of it.
"How about Theresa Baker?" he said.
Theresa Baker. I had to run the idea through my mind a few times. She comes to youth meetings once a month, at most, and when she comes, she wears a face so cold it can freeze your blood. Her hair's dyed in a purple sheen, she's got an earring in her nose, and she buys clothes at some St. Vincent DePaul that carries late-sixties psychedelia. When she comes, the only time she moves is to check the clock.
But Tom and I know her mother, and believe me, that's another story. That Theresa comes at all is something we should be thankful for.
"Theresa, a deacon?" I said.
Tom hunched his shoulders. "Be good for her maybe," he said. "Besides, we don't have many kids left to choose from who can be there."
I scratched in Theresa's name along with several other kids who were already taking other parts of the service.
Old Testament Offering
We brought the idea to the kids and happened to hit them in one of those infrequent sweet moods they unexplain-ably fall into—a time when they seem nearly human. (I shouldn't be so critical—I love them, really!)
Gregg thought the service would be okay (although that was before we told him he was going to be the preacher). Nancy and Sharice—all the juniors and seniors, really—went along with it too. Enthusiastic? Hardly But sometimes you take joy in tacit acceptance.
So we talked about it—what it might look like, what kinds of changes are permissible (Shannon said to skip the sermon and show a Star Wars movie since they were religious), and who might get together to write a little litany.
It was Gregg's idea to do an offering in what he described as an "Old Testament" way—bring it to the front. "IVe always thought we should try that once," he said. "That's the way the Israelites did it."
When kids come up with reasonably good ideas, you don't squelch them. And when Gregg said it, I wasn't thinking about Theresa.
"Sure," I said. "I can't imagine anyone would have any trouble with that kind of change."
We assigned the kids their duties, and that's when I thought of Theresa Baker standing up front___What could we do? All of the other kids we had chosen had their own assignments.
She wasn't at the meeting, so I called her on Thursday and told her what we were doing, what her job was. She said she'd do it, but I was pretty sure she wouldn't show up. In fact, I called Sammy Lansink and told him to be ready to stand up there with Annie Blevens, just in case we had a no-show.
I was wrong Theresa Baker was there with bells on—literally. Striped bell-bottoms. A black "motorcycle" leather jacket. A paisley hair band. Earrings in all the inappropriate places. Her oddly colored hair fell over her eyes with such regularity that the continuous jerking she had to do to keep it away from her face made her look like a woman possessed.
(Imagine, for a moment, old Clarence and Jenny Vander offering their tithe to our own Janis Joplin. Imagine Ralph Bonhomme, an IBM exec whose suits cost more than our organ, standing in front of Theresa!)
Actually, Theresa did better than we expected. She had no lines, and she politely refrained from wearing the veil of stubborn darkness that otherwise shrouds her face. She had nothing to do but stand there, and, believe me, she could well have done that worse.
But the following Tuesday, Theresa's mother called me at work and told me her daughter had been arrested. On Sunday night—after the very service in which she'd stood in front—she and her cohorts had headed over to the other side of town and stuck a cross in the ground.
And then they lit it. They burned it. And the yard just happened to belong to a black family who had recently moved into the neighborhood.
Theresa had been one of the ringleaders. The same Theresa who'd stood up in front of the church two hours before and taken our offerings like some anointed Old Testament priest.
Tom and I have this arrangement— maybe it's sexist, I don't know. When "our kids" have real problems, I take the girls, and he takes the guys. So I went to see Theresa Baker.
I hate to say this, but I could tell immediately that if I was to get anywhere with Theresa, it would have to be outside of that house. Her mother was crying, balled up in an emotional lump in a rocker. Theresa's father was nowhere to be seen.
The school year wasn't quite over, but track season was almost history so I took her to the stadium out back of Apollo High School. There were only a half-dozen kids, probably state qualifiers, working out. We sat in the bleachers— the two of us—alone.
"People can't take a joke," she told me. I can't begin to explain how unsorry she seemed.
"What people?" I asked.
She nodded, rolling her eyes.
"You thought they'd laugh?" I asked.
She put her feet up on the seat in front of her and leaned on her knees with her elbows, never looking at me.
"You thought they'd think it was cute?" I pushed a little further.
She shrugged her shoulders. "We were just having a little fun..."
"But do you know what it means?" I asked.
"The burning cross—do you know what it means to African-Americans?"
"African-Americans,"' she mimicked. "They all think they deserve special treatment or something."
Right in front of us, two young girls, one of them black, were taking turns sprinting down the path toward the long-jump pit.
"So that's why you did it?" I said.
"It was something to do," she told me. "There isn't anything to do in this place."
"So you thought you'd burn a cross."
"This zs a free country" she said.
Sometime or other during our conversation, I suppose some great, perfect youth leader would have hugged her. But I couldn't.
"You represented God," I told her.
"What do you mean?"
"You stood up there in church that night, taking people's offerings. You represented the Lord God Almighty."
She dropped her feet, looked at me for the first time, and laughed.
"I'm serious," I said. "Does that mean anything to you?"
"What's that got to do with what happened?" she said, looking away again.
"I just want you to know that sometimes things have meaning far beyond what we might think," I told her, "like burning crosses."
She stared out toward the field, where those two long-jumpers kept sprinting.
"You let us down—all of us," I told her.
"I told you, it was just something to do..."
"No, it wasn't," I said. I was angry— I'll admit it. "Don't you dare say that, Theresa, because it isn't true, and you know it."
"I don't care," she said.
And right then I asked myself why I even bothered. Why on earth was I getting myself so wrapped up in this girl who just didn't care?
"Just a few hours," I said, "and you go from representing God to representing Satan."
"It was a joke," she insisted, hitting her knees. "What's the big deal?"
"The big deal is love and hate," I told her. "That's the big deal. There is no bigger deal," I said. And I got to my feet because I couldn't sit there beside her anymore.
Then I said something I never thought I'd say. I did. I admit it. But you don't know what I saw in that girl's eyes. I can't really describe it.
"Theresa," I told her, "this is what's real. If you don't ask God for forgiveness, you're going to hell."
That's what I said. Believe me, I never thought I'd say anything like it. But that's exactly what I told her, because I thought right then—with such full-bloomed belligerence in her eyes—that that's exactly where she was bound.
She looked up at me, mad enough to spit. She got to her feet and walked down the row toward the steps, then left the bleachers and started walking home.
And I just stood there, bawling.
A few minutes later I tried to pick her up in my car, but she wouldn't even turn her head.
I got home an hour later. The light on the answering machine was flashing, so I punched the button and listened.
"IVe heard it was your idea to put Theresa Baker in the front of church Sunday night to take the offering. Do you think that was right? I know you could have had no idea what would happen later, but shouldn't people who participate in worship give some evidence of being God's people?" The speaker left no name or number.
As the voice that sent Theresa to hell, what do I think? I'm not sure. After all, who of us is really pure, and who isn't? Whose lives give evidence of righteousness, and whose lives don't? Is racism the very worst of sins?
I wish I knew.
And that's why I sometimes fantasize about being the perfect youth leader in some happy megachurch where everyone loves each other and no one ever, ever sins.
Lord Jesus, as some old prophet might say come quickly.