by Caleb Parker
I love the moments a teenager thinks they are getting away with something, with little awareness that the adult standing nearby is actually fully aware and actively engaged in the choices they are making. I am the kind of leader who tends to take a step back, collecting the stories and understanding, for days or even weeks before showing my hand. I had one of these moments with Jacob, a teen in our program who has been flirting with a local gang. Our team had noticed some tagging conveniently in his wake, a bit of cryptic gang language from him, and some indications in his choice of clothing that Jacob is, at the very least, influenced, if not a part, of the local gang. After a few weeks of paying attention to the signs, I noticed Jacob scratching something into our metal railing while the rest of our group was playing sports. I let him finish his art piece, and went to check the area on our way in, all to notice some tagging of the local gang etched into the rail. He knew I knew; and I knew he knew that I knew.
Outside of neighborhoods impacted by gangs, we typically don’t give much attention to the graffiti around us, usually because we do not know what it means, nor does it affect our day-to-day living. We dismiss it as criminal behavior or think to ourselves that it is just kids messing around. Yet tagging remains a divine art form, prophetically proclaiming, “see me,” to a society which refuses to see. For the gang member, tagging provides a declaration that their humanity exists; that although nobody may care, they are still breathing. Etched into the railings of a walkway are the legacies of a kid who simply wants to be seen. And as a result, with each stroke of his hand, Jacob offers a prayer– a prayer of belonging, a prayer of lament, a prayer of petition. In the prophetic line of Jeremiah, Micah, and Hosea, Jacob embodies his prayers, inconveniencing those who refuse to see him in order to declare the profound divine truth of his humanness.
After sports (and Jacob’s side art project), I ask him to come talk with me for a minute. Because his art was a prayer out of unmet needs (and probable teenage boredom), our conversation began with those needs: affirming that he is loved, ensuring there is no judgment, reinforcing the months of trust and unconditional embrace our team has already built with him. And then, together, we lay the truth on the table, directly and clearly, I tell him what I saw him do. Jacob, the bold truth teller that he is, owns up to his choice. Not feeling safe enough to fully share the extent of his involvement yet, he says he noticed the cursive writing around the neighborhood and thought it looked cool. But again, he knew I knew; and I knew he knew that I knew. Returning to his prophetic prayer, he is told of his unconditional belonging, his freedom to show his true self with us, and the depth of our love for him regardless of his choices. As our conversation wraps up, as that prayer takes a step closer to being answered, Jacob stands up, wraps his arms around me with a bear hug, and says, “Thank you,” knowing that he is seen.
If Jacob’s art is a prophetic prayer, then his behavior is not something to be punished, but instead a message from God to be heard through his behavior. Our teens, in all sorts of ways, are communicating their deep longings to us day after day. Through their behavior our teens are prophesying and praying. What transformation awaits when the people of God are responsive and attentive to these cries is unknown. Yet what is known is that our teens are intimately connected to the divine– simply by the beauty of their humanness– and they are communicating to us their deep longings for wholeness even in their scratches on railings.
Thank you for stepping into the gap with us,
Director, United Kids & Teens