Even when I am traveling, I can’t avoid seeing the world (or at least parts of it) through the lens of youth ministry. My wife and I had the opportunity to study at Jerusalem University College this past summer as part of some graduate studies I am completing. On the exceedingly long and uncomfortable flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, I sat next to a young Jewish man named Michael. He had on the typical Jewish garb (skull cap or kippah, black and white clothes, etc.) that distinguished him from a shorts and T-shirt California ocean lover such as myself (I must say, my long beard was quite fashionable in that context).
At different times throughout the flight, my aisle mate would pull out a little pouch containing his Tanach (Hebrew Bible) and a few other prayer accessories that were somewhat foreign to me. He would recite Scripture, pray and kiss each item before putting it back into the small pouch. As I looked around the plane, I could see that about 40 percent of the men were doing the very same thing. For each of them, this was simply part of their daily routine and devotion to their faith. For me, this was fascinating (and a bit convicting as my main focus was getting my headphones to work in both ears).
I asked Michael his story, being specifically interested in his upbringing as a Jewish boy and young adult. He said he had left his parents’ home at the age of 14 to study to be a rabbi. He spent the next seven years devoted to studying the Tanach, Talmud and Midrash along with other aspiring rabbis. I asked, “Does everyone want to be a rabbi when they are a teenager?” He replied, “Of course! But most of us don’t actually make it to be rabbis. It is very hard, even if you just want to be a rabbi who does circumcision or manages Kosher laws. I didn’t make it to be a rabbi, so now I am a jeweler.”
A couple days later, I sat in street side café in Jerusalem with a friend who moved to Israel out of what he saw as necessary faithfulness to his religion. After listening to his story and asking questions about Jewish youth ministry (which takes the form of rabbinical school), I walked away with a profound understanding: To be a rabbi is to know and embody the story of the past, while working to advance the ancient story in the present-future. In other words, to know the future story, the Jewish student must be a master of the past story. This is the heart of Jewish youth ministry.
While it is easy for us to write off the values of other religions because they are different, I believe we have a lot to learn from my Jewish friend. How would the lives of our teenagers look if our youth ministries instilled such devotion to our Rabbi Jesus? Do we tell the story of our past so our students can live out the kingdom story of the future faithfully?
Since being here in the Middle East, my wife and I have been intentional about spending time with Palestinians in the West Bank. It has been an eye-opening, hope-filled-with-tears-kind of experience. Seeking the story of these often forgotten people, we met Milad and Minar. They are a Christian Palestinian couple raised in Jerusalem and Bethlehem before much of the current political tension (as is symbolized by the haunting “Separation Wall” between Israel and the West Bank) came to a head. While Milad is able to enter Israel for work (although his 5-minute commute is now closer to an hour through Israeli check points), Minar is not. As they served us a home-cooked meal at their parents’ home within a refugee camp in Bethlehem (part of West Bank), they had entered their 12th day without fresh water. They could be filled with anger, fear and tension (and at times they are), but instead they have chosen to participate in the hope of Jesus.
Three years ago they started a non-profit organization in Bethany that promotes peace and reconciliation among the youth of Palestine. Every day they have 60 to 70 kids come running through their doors as they teach music, art and the value of community. Some have been physically abused; others don’t have parents as they been killed or imprisoned; others don’t know when their next meal will come. Our hearts broke, and our worldview was shattered. As my wife and I stood in a room filled with kids grinning from ear to ear as they sang songs of hope (in Arabic) at the top of their lungs, we saw the face of Jesus.
I recently went back to the West Bank to visit these friends and youth workers who have chosen to give their lives to the kids and teenagers of Palestine. They could flee the inhumane living conditions, but they won’t. Looking me in the eye, Milad said, “I will never leave the kids of Palestine. Even in a situation that seems hopeless, I must trust and share the hope of Jesus as long as I am able.” On top of a being a youth worker, Milad works as a hotel housekeeper to make enough money to support his family and the kids of his youth ministry. He is one of my heroes.
What is it about living in oppression that stirs the hearts of Christians? How can we keep from domesticating our youth ministries in the West so as to miss out on the life that Jesus called us to embody?
Although there are plenty of tensions in the Middle East, specifically between Israel and Palestine, youth ministry has the ability to transcend the differences and develop devotion and hope. As youth workers in the West, it is easy to get caught up in the chaos of our ministries and lose the perspective of God’s growing, global kingdom. May we emulate their devotion and share in the radical hope of our fellow youth workers across the globe.
Jon Huckins is the author of Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling, a veteran youth pastor and public school teacher who is now on staff with NieuCommunities, a collective of missional church communities that foster leadership and community development. After traveling and studying in the Middle East, Jon focuses much of his writing and graduate studies at Fuller Theological Seminary on ethics and social advocacy. He also writes for Youth Specialties and loves to tell and live out new stories with teenagers. He lives in San Diego with his wife, Jan, daughter, Ruby, and three-legged dog, Harry. Find Jon on Twitter, Facebook or at JonHuckins.net.