I will never forget the first day she came to youth group. She stood in the back behind the counter with her arms folded. Everything in her face seemed to scream to the world to leave her alone! So I made sure to give her an extra warm greeting despite the signals she was giving. I tried to ask Ray (not her real name) questions to get to know her, but I only received shoulder shrugs. Nevertheless, I made sure to let her know I was grateful she came. After a game that she did not participate in, the youth group pulled chairs into a circle getting ready for the lesson. Ray wouldn’t budge from behind the counter but I made a space for her anyway. “Ray, there’s a chair for you here in the circle if you want to come join us, but it’s OK if you decide not to.” She didn’t move from behind the counter and remained there for the rest of youth group. Afterward, she was the first to bolt out the door. I fully expected to never see her again.
Much to my surprise, she walked into youth group the following week. She had the same expression on her face and continued to build a fortress for herself behind the counter. When we circled up in chairs for the lesson someone insisted she join us. She didn’t budge, and she only dug her heels in further the more that person insisted. I intervened and looked Ray in the eyes to tell her the decision was completely up to her reiterating, “We are just glad you are here.” Later, this person asked me why I wouldn’t have Ray join the rest of the group and my answer was pretty simple. “Because she’s here.” I said. This person tried to keep questioning this decision, but I just kept say, “She’s here. She’s not distracting anyone. Her presence is enough.”
I didn’t know Ray’s story yet, but her demeanor indicated to me that she definitely had a story full of pain. The fact that Ray kept showing up at all was pretty miraculous in my eyes. She had enough courage to simply show up in an environment completely new to her with people she didn’t know or trust. Whatever she had gone through, showing up must have been big step for her. I was already proud and thankful she was willing to take that step. I knew that Ray needed to feel like she was in control by letting her choose where she wanted to sit or stand during youth group. Her presence and willingness to show up was enough.
Now, two years later, Ray comes to youth group sometimes with smiles and laughter. Other days, she is still a bit more reserved but still seems to carry a lighter load than before. It turns out; Ray is an artist and a poet. She has shared poetry with me and made a wonderful art display in our youth room that is framed and hangs on the wall. She has connected with a few other students and even joins in with other students playing foosball. She comes to nearly every single event and has the most consistent attendance in the youth group. She has found a place of belonging at church. She has even shared some about her life with another leader she has connected with. Honestly, I am not sure where she’s at on her faith journey, but her presence is enough. Her survival for what she’s been through, and her willingness to show up is a miracle in itself. I see the Holy Spirit slowly healing her heart. I see the broken pieces of her life coming back together the more she feels secure and loved. Belonging has created space for the start of her transformation story.