I was taking the Joshua Station teens to a local park. I can’t quite remember what our goal was, although it probably had something to do with flying a kite as this was our main activity that summer.
We had noticed some tension brewing between two of our teenagers in the weeks leading up to this particular evening. Nicholas was very talkative and a lover of over dramatizing the simplest details of life. He often found himself on the fringes of our teen community—especially with the other guys. Thomas was a young man who had found some level of acceptance with the teens at Joshua Station and managed to keep most of us at arms length. Nicholas and Thomas were not friends and that summer brought extra tension to their already strained relationship.
Even with the increased drama in our group however, our day at the park was pretty fun. It was on the way home that things took a turn for the worst. The biggest problem: I was completely unaware.
Somehow we had engaged the subject of gangs in the neighborhood—probably me asking questions about various tags on stop signs and garages. At first everyone was fairly quiet and mostly uninterested, until Thomas piped up. “Hey Ben. You want to know the lamest gang in Denver?” I was intrigued. “The Goofies!” He and another boy in the van started laughing and I joined in. “That is a funny name”, I said. The rest of the ride back to Joshua Station was filled with Thomas making fun of this gang and me laughing along, half thinking he was making the whole thing up just to mess with me.
I parked the van. Most of the kids got out. Then I looked in my mirror and saw Nicholas sitting in his seat trying to hold back tears. “What’s up?” I asked him. “You guys were just making fun of me.” “What are you talking about?” Then his friend chimed in, “Goofies is a derogatory nickname kids give to a certain gang in town. Nicholas is friends with lots of them.”
I just sat there. I felt humiliated. I felt totally defeated. I had unknowingly participated in the ridicule of a kid. The only thing I could muster the wisdom to say was, “I’m sorry man.”
I ran into Nicholas at the Denver Zoo a few months ago. He was excited to see me and my daughter, who he hadn’t seen since she was a baby. He gave us a free ride on the Carousel and we talked for a few minutes before my daughter and I left. It was so good to see him. It was good to see that he was doing well. It was also good to see that my failure didn’t impact him as much as I had feared in the moment.
There is a prayer often attributed to Oscar Romero that we sometimes read in our staff meetings. It is called “The Long View“. This prayer is a beautiful (and humbling) reminder of the nature of our work. It is also a reminder that if we judge our work based on the narrow definitions of success and failure we will reach burnout and quit in no time.
Experiences like this have helped me to re-frame failure. Rather than being a sign that I am in the wrong profession, I am learning to see failure as a safeguard against the savior-mentality that sometimes drives people into working with folks who are experiencing difficulty. I am learning to see it as a reminder that I am not the one charged with bringing God’s Kingdom here on earth. Instead I am only one part of a world-wide body working toward that aim–something that, if the Romero prayer is accurate, we won’t even see the fullness of. Failure keeps me humble, and not in the way that ironically brings pride. It keeps me humble by reminding me of how little I actually control in the lives of these kids. Failure reminds me that more than fixing every problem presented by every kid at Joshua Station, I need only focus on being faithful in loving them imperfectly and authentically—here and now.
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