Youth Ministry On The Run
Guest post by Joel VanDyke, Liderazgo Juvenil in Guatemala City, Guatemala
Allow me to open a window to my soul for a moment. I am tired. Really, really tired. I live in Guatemala City serving youth leaders throughout Central America and the Caribbean who work with high-risk youth in very hard places. My colleagues and I have been thinking long and hard about what spiritual formation looks like for youth leaders serving gang incarcerated youth, street youth, and teens from families living in extreme poverty. We talk a lot about trying to figure out what the Jesuits meant by exploring “spirituality on the run.” The Jesuits, deeply engaged in the world, serve with “one foot raised” to the extent that they can stay deeply engaged with what is unfolding around them.
As I sat down this morning in the midst of a few days for writing and reflection, I had a direction I was prepared to go, thinking about the youth workers in the networks that we serve who work tirelessly with young people drowning in violence and unrelenting poverty. I thought I knew the direction I was planning to go when I got up this morning, but now my gaze has shifted.
I am sitting on a bench in the Parque Central (Central Park) of Antigua, Guatemala. It is one of the most beautiful “parque centrals” in all of Latin America. Here I become attentive to the contrast between the restlessness of my soul against the backdrop of the beauty and sweetness of the park. A majestic fountain lies at the center of the park and around it all activity in the park revolves. European and U.S. tourists mingle with indigenous women selling their “cosas tipicas” and smiling shoeshine boys offering their services. There are lovers peering into each other’s eyes while children run and jump around the fountain with the gentle breeze glistening their little faces with mist from the fountain spray. Now a small army of teenagers in their colorful, coordinated uniforms pass through the park with electricity in their step on the way to school. This morning, at this moment, all is well with the world in Parque Central.
Why do I seldom find these kinds of “sweet, sacred, centering times” in my life? Why have I figured out so intricately the “running” part of Jesuit spirituality, but have so poorly lived out the, dare I admit, “spirituality” part?
The answer is not found in the idea of a momentary escape from the rigors of youth ministry (“quiet time”) where one settles into a quiet bench in a park centered by a stationary fountain whose hidden pumps spout recycled water up into the sky. No, my prayers for my youth ministry friends in the trenches this morning are rooted in the idea of a spirituality on the run that see’s the world as a “parque central” with the life giving fountain of God’s presence in all places at all times. St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) said God is “within all things but not enclosed; outside all things, but not excluded; above all things, but not aloof; below all things, but not debased.” Bonaventure spoke of God as one “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Now that is quite a sacred, sweet, and safe “park” to live in. Bonaventure seemed to see the whole world as the Parque Central that I find myself sitting in right now!
What would it look like if I could actually learn to live out the implications of that theological premise that I profoundly believe to be true? What does this mean for the youth workers I serve who need a spirituality that can sustain them in the midst of insurmountable pain and hardship? W. H. Auden animates my work when he writes, “I know nothing, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.” Grace is always dancing, often most artfully in the very place my friends serving young people and their families currently find themselves.
The late missiologist and theologian Orlando Costas wrote, “With Jesus there came a fundamental shift in the location of salvation: the center was moved to the periphery… The fact that Jesus wrought salvation outside the Holy City does not mean that we have now a new salvific center, but rather a permanent, moving center in the periphery of life.”
Maybe that is what spirituality on the run for youth ministry looks like. A beautiful fountain in a portable “parque central” that moves wherever I go, if only I cultivate the awareness to live into it. That’s about as “Youth Ministry 101” as one can get. For now, at least, I am content to sit here on this bench in the sweet sacred moment of this particular parque central and pray for my friends who are pouring out their lives for young people in very hard places and circumstances. I pray that they might dance today in the mist of the great Fountain of Life, “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
Editor’s note: Joel is one of a handful of writers who contribute to the YLO and MVL Resource Books each quarter. We’re grateful to Joel for his work, but more so for his insight and his heart for youth leaders.