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It had been a hectic week, but the end was in sight and a well-earned nap was on the horizon. The leadership of G+M was pleased to host another youth retreat for students thinking about what it looks like to make a difference in a place like Danville. But, by Sunday morning, we were exhausted and hearing echoes of past retreats where our own elders and leaders had lamented the feeling of getting older. It seems that we also are susceptible to age and questions of how these teenagers could still have so much energy after the weekend we had shared together.
On Friday afternoon, the students and their adult leaders arrived to begin their retreat. They began to warm up after several games and introductions. Grace and Main’s leadership—a healthy mixture of ages, professions, and of the homeless and non-homeless alike—introduced the group to what they’d be doing over the next 42 hours. Then, we loaded into their vehicles and gave them a tour of the area where they’d be working—making sure to point out not only the beautiful places and people, but also the broken ones, for almost always they are one and the same. After a meal, a Bible study, and some more fun, we parted and went to our beds.
When we gathered together again on Saturday morning, we began preparing all the materials we would need to throw a party in our local park on Green St. As the youth made the short walk to the park with bags full of hot dogs, balls, bottles of water, jump ropes, and sidewalk chalk, they began to call to children along the way and invite them to come and play. After a couple of hours of ministry through meals and play, a group of older students went with some of our leaders to eat lunch with some homeless brothers and sisters on a nearby street where some of them had taken emergency shelter in an abandoned house.
By the time our parties, meals, and celebrations of grace were finished, it was time to debrief about the day and the work we had done together. They, like nearly all the students who join us to work in our neighborhood, didn’t really know what to say or how to talk about what they had just experienced. Usually, students are surprised not only by the poverty that is so rampant and dominant in our neighborhoods, but also by the love they are shown so openly and desperately by the children who find them in their park.
It turns out that love that pure and unconditional surprises all of us. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the experience though, is that the only response that seems appropriate or sufficient to that kind of acceptance and love is to open yourself in love in return.
After talking about the power of relationships and how “little things with great love” make a big difference, minds start changing and attitudes toward our poor brothers and sisters start softening. So, on Sunday morning, after more Bible study, games, and frozen yogurt on Saturday night, we gathered for our last moments together on retreat: our service of commissioning. This special service is when we tell the students that they came to serve in our midst, but now they go back to their homes as missionaries to their community. After all, there are people in need of love everywhere and little acts of love change lives wherever they happen—not just in Danville.
As they loaded on to their vans, we waved goodbye with thoughts of warm food and soft pillows on our minds. But, this particular time we overheard one of the students saying something beautiful to her mother on her cellphone: “Mom! You won’t believe it! I’m a real life missionary, now.” We smiled, nodded, and silently celebrated the contagious nature of little things with great love. Lives were changing—not just in Danville.