I mentioned a few posts back about how proud of was of my youth group during our recent mission trip and participation in our denomination's national gathering. Part of that gathering included attending workshops with other youth. On one particular day, our group really wanted to stick around for a workshop on sex and dating. The other adults and I had our concerns, not knowing just who was teaching it or what they might say, but we agreed to stay and check it out. The young youth minister leading the discussion jumped right into it, using all his powers of entertainment to get the group on their feet and actively involved in the topic. However, and just as I had feared, he made the dangerous assumption that every teen in the room was exactly like him, which in this case meant: raging heterosexual.
His opening challenge to the youth: "Split into groups of just guys or just girls and I want you to use a big sheet of paper and markers to show us your image of the ideal person of the opposite sex." Immediately the majority of the group jumped up, formed teams, and went to work. The boys clustered into two large groups, standing around in a circle like football players in a huddle, chuckling at jokes under their breath. The girls, perhaps more thoughtful, sat down together in small groups, working more quietly. All was clearly going as planned to set up the talk the youth minister had in mind on the difference between guys and girls!
But not all the youth joined in. Throughout the audience, ten or so youth, most sitting by themselves, stayed in their chairs, not participating at all. "Describe your image of the ideal person of the opposite sex" he had instructed them, perhaps not realizing that in doing so, he had just alienated every young person in the room who was not attracted to the opposite sex, wasn't sure WHO they were attracted to, or simply did not want to share out loud for fear of being made fun of by their peers.
Predictably, the two boy groups ended up with almost identical drawings of a Barbie-shaped girl, in a bikini -- big breasts, big butt. Oh, and neither of the boys' drawings bothered to include a head! Just the girl's half-naked body. One group of boys were kind of enough to draw a small stick figure of a "fat girl" at the bottom of the page to represent the one guy in the group who liked big women. This elicited laughter from the group. I wondered how that made the less-than-thin girls in the room feel. (Some boys from my group later said they wanted to mention other less "carnal" attributes for a girl but felt embarrassed to say anything given the situation. No points for bravery there, I guess.)
The girls' efforts were not much better. One after another they presented either a drawing or a list of attributes they look for in a guy: muscles, abs, good-looking, good hair, good teeth, biceps, athletic, not fat, etc. I began to wonder just what the less-than-perfect kids in the room, those with "bad hair" and no abs, were thinking about themselves in that moment.
Finally, the girls from our group (most of whom were wearing "Celebrate Diversity" pins they'd picked up at the gay Christians booth) got up to share their response. On their sheet of paper they had drawn a series of stick figures pairs, each holding hands and surrounded by hearts. One pair was a male and female figure, one was two males, and one was two females. On their page they had also listed the qualities they look for in a partner: honest, trustworthy, tender, sense of humor, good listener, forgiving, loving. After they finished sharing, the youth minister leading the discussion thanked them for their response, but clearly didn't know what to do with it since it didn't quite fit into the stereotyped expectations he had hoped to elicit.
This experience made me think about how often we make the mistake of assuming that the people we serve in ministry are just like us. We assume they share our values, our perspective, our view of the world, our interpretation, our politics, our prejudices. I thought of the number of times I've made the mistake of assuming all the youth in the room are straight, only to find out later I was sorely mistaken. The number of times I've assumed all the youth in the room were Christian, when the truth was otherwise. The times I've assumed all the youth in the room have parents who love them more than life itself, only to discover later that some were living in emotionally destructive families.
I'm reminded that Jesus met people where they were at and invited them to take a place at God's table with the invitation "Come as you are!"
Image above is of some of our youth at the recent General Assembly of The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).