Alex has a bit of a stutter. Honestly, it’s not even as recognizable as my own, but some of the other kids had picked up on it; particularly Mario. Seeing the constant reports of arguments between Alex and Mario had started to trigger the bullied Middle Schooler in me, because Alex’s stutter came up repeatedly. Usually it would start with something like a friendly sports competition or some seemingly harmless “trash talk”. No matter how it started, it almost always ended with Alex in tears and Mario denying everything he was accused of.
It was a Monday when I walked into Joshua Station to a troubling report. Alex, while often the target of Mario’s verbal attacks, is actually the bigger of the two by a decent margin. Well, he and Mario got into another argument that ended with Mario making fun of his stutter, only this time Alex didn’t end up in tears. As the legend goes, he used a few choice words and forced Mario to “trip” into the bushes along the sidewalk. Once there, Mario desperately tried to escape, but Alex kept pushing him in and making sure he had nowhere to go. Luckily for everyone involved, Mario was able to squeeze his way out behind the bushes and run his fasted 100 meter dash back to his apartment.
Stories like this are not exactly in short supply at Joshua Station–or any school, after school program, and day camp for that matter. It seems that kids can sometimes be downright nasty to each other. It can be tempting to label the attackers as “Bad Kids” or “Trouble Makers” and just accept that they are wired poorly, but of course most of us know better.
The truth is that Mario lives in a Transformational Housing Program rather than a nice 4 bedroom house, something his family could definitely use. He is deeply insecure, although it takes a conversation with an adult he really trusts to be vulnerable enough to show it. He is constantly exposed to a glamorous image of what “success” looks like and he can find dozens of illustrations of how he, and his family, fall short.
When you get to know Mario, you realize that he says terrible things to Alex, because he gets some relief from the idea that he is “better” or “more successful” than someone else. He seems to believe that by reducing Alex to tears, the attention of those seeking to expose weakness will be diverted away from him. Once this happens, he might even be able to convince himself that he has a little more worth than previously assumed. Of course this feeling of worth only lasts until he encounters another example of a personal shortcoming.
It seems that somewhere along the way a central message of the Gospel has been distorted and even forgotten. At the deepest, truest core of Mario’s being is the very image of the God who created him. Whatever insecurities he has are born out of the incorrect belief that his identity is formed by how others see him or how “successful” he is.
Our kids at Joshua Station are largely still stuck in the mindset that you have to look, act, believe a certain way to truly be accepted by your peers, role models, and even God. Unlearning this cultural norm and remembering the truth about our deepest being is a lifelong journey. It’s a journey that requires several companions and guides. In some ways that is what I see as my most significant work at Joshua Station—to be a guide for these kids along this difficult journey. My prayer is that kids like Mario will begin to discover their truest selves. I also pray that in that discovery, they would realize how infinitely valuable they truly are. Perhaps once they catch even a glimpse of that reality, the need to prove their worth at another’s expense will begin to fade.
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