Below is the manuscript from my meditation used during Trinity Presbyterian Church’s service on Sunday, June 24th. My roommate Ashley and I both attend Trinity, and we planned the entire service based on the themes of justice and service. Much of our material was the poetic work of the Iona community. The following is only a small sample of what I have experienced this year, but it provides an accurate depiction of the face of God in each on of the children at Preston Taylor Ministries.
Galatians 5: 22-23; 6: 2-4 (I used this as the scripture reading for my meditation.)
22By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.
4 All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride.
5 For all must carry their own loads.
6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.
I have spent this year working at Preston Taylor Ministries (or PTM as I will refer to it.) PTM is an after-school program for urban youth living in a low income area in Nashville. I work directly with the students, engaging them in academic classes, in games, working with behavior issues, and surrounding them in love through the work of God.
The fruits of the spirit are gifts I was reminded of often this past year working at Preston Taylor Ministries. Mostly because I was witness to the fruits through the actions of PTM students while equally hyper aware of my struggle to possess them.
As our children filed off the bus after school each day, Chan (our executive director) would greet them outside the door. He would crouch down to be at eye level,
Sometimes he would gently rest his hand on a child’s head or on her shoulders, and then he would intentionally pause as if he was making a life altering decision.
After this pause, he would look up, directly into each child’s eyes and announce a fruit of the spirit he felt that child possessed: peace, love, joy, faithfulness and so on.
His announcement was normally met with a smirk, and mandatory eye roll as each student walked through the door. And I will admit, first I could only see this at face value, a means of calming each child before entering the building. I was unable to truly appreciate Chan’s intentions until the end of the school year.
Chan captured this uninterrupted moment to affirm God’s work in each one of our children’s lives. He took the time to challenge students to live up to the fruits of the spirit, and to encourage a sense of purpose a sense of pride… far more than many of our kids may usually receive.
As I reflect back on those moments now, I am reminded of stories in which the light of God and the fruits of the Spirit were present through our students.
We have one student, Cincere, who just finished Kindergarten. He is six years old, but still the size of a toddler, and suspected to fall somewhere on the Autism spectrum, a more severe case. This year has been one of a magical transformation for him, as well as for our other students through their interactions with him.
Each day after school Cincere would hop off the bus, Spiderman backpack in tow, wide-eyed, extremely aware, but unequivocally silent. When he wished to have something or to do something he would do so by independently working towards his goal or silently pointing to the object of his desire. He continuously exhibited a sense of peace.
I would often recount stories of his genuine delight as he stood in front of the water fountain, water flowing through his fingers. No one could touch his happiness, it was the purest most innocent sense of joy.
Picture with me Cincere no taller than three feet and extremely petite. Cincere is sitting at a table, in this picture he is the only child you can see. We were in the middle of a prayer. His hands are perfectly aligned resting on the table just like this, his eyes are peacefully closed, and he has a slight, but very apparent smile on his face. The picture almost feels intrusive, in such an intimate moment with God through prayer peace and joy abounding.
This picture was taken in the past few weeks. This is not a picture of the quiet Cincere from September. As the months passed, Cincere began forming and using words, the first few being Batman and Spiderman as he is a slightly obsessed.
I distinctly remember the first day Cincere audibly spoke the words, “Yes, ma’am” to me when I asked him a question. These words felt like a fireworks display-spoken softly but a grandiose, booming statement full of sparkle and flare because of who spoke the words. I stood in awe at what I could only understand as an intense patience with God, and with himself. It was as if these words had been itching to come out, tickling his tongue, but Cincere patiently waited as he developed and learned to speak.
His speech has continued to improve and his interactions with others have increased, as well. The other student’s at PTM have been witness to God at work through Cincere’s patience and joy, and I believe it has surrounded others as well. Day after day our students exhibit an instinctual and maternal gentleness with Cincere. Eager to please, or maybe rather an eagerness to feel needed, students offer to read to him play with him walk him to the bus and the list goes on. They exemplify faithfulness not only to Cincere, but to God through a willingness to live in God’s love and serve as children of God through acts of kindness and generosity.
These children of God continuously pour out love to us at Preston Taylor Ministries. They love through simple acts: hugs, smiles, and other quiet moments. When a hug lasts a few seconds too long, or goes on forever, it is a desperate cry for love, not only to be loved, but to show their capacity to love deeply. Theirs is a love that can fill the greatest abyss, one that can melt the firmest heart, and one that is shared with exuberance. For children who have witnessed such heartache, their ability to love so purely and freely is a testament to faith in God, and their work as a part of the Kingdom of God.
I have not mentioned self-control up to this point, as I would say it may be the one fruit with which our students struggle the most. In many cases, the reality for our students includes little supervision or structure at home, which naturally leads to these kids filling their time as they please. Therefore, I see them using self-control in instances where a child is provoked by another student and consciously chooses to respond peacefully or to ignore the situation completely. These behaviors are likely a result of the principles and values we impress upon students during their time at PTM and it takes a great deal of strength to exhibit self-control considering the mentality in their community where this may not be modeled for them.
The stories of Cincere, along with the many stories of our students are whole-heartedly grounded in God’s Kingdom. Giving up on God, or losing faith seems easy when a child lives questioning where his next meal will come from, or spends the night sleeping in a car because a family member was arrested, or wondering when he will next see his incarcerated father. Our student’s live in these tragedies every day. There is no moral justification as to why our students are in these situations.
So who am I to try and comfort or empathize when I have lived an extremely blessed and easy life? No matter who I am, how do you look a child in the eyes and justify that sadness, that fear, and that loneliness?
It is these times that I feel so completely unqualified for my job, but I try to bring myself back to two facts. The first is this… I may not know the right thing to say or do, but my presence, my hugs and praises can be all that they want. Our students simply long for a consistent relationship with those that they love.
The second fact is that I am incredibly thankful we are rooted in a loving God. Having a higher power to answer to, reassuring students that God has a unique and amazing plan for each student and above all us, reminding these children that God does not give up on us. These children have been given every reason to lose faith in God, to fall away from His truth.
At PTM, we continually remind them that they are never at a point where God believes we are beyond help. As Galatians chapter 6 says, we must bear our own loads, but with a faithfulness to God those loads become a little lighter allowing our light to shine through the fruits of the spirit-uniquely and lovingly gifted to us by our merciful God.
[You can see other blogs posted by Megan throughout her Young Adult Volunteer year in Nashville at PTM: http://www.megansyavyear.blogspot.com/]