Three weeks ago, I was on a bus in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico with a dozen or so bone-tired teenagers and other group leaders. We were on our way back from a week-long summer youth missions trip.
Our bus lurched sluggishly up a steep highway. On our left, across the lanes of traffic swerving to go around us, was the drop to the ocean. On the right, towns perched on brown sandy peaks, dotted by brilliant clusters of red and purple flowers and brightly painted cement buildings. Then we heard an all-too-familiar sound―a jolt and an internal groan as the bus gasped for breath. We all responded in cartoon-like unison:
Are we breaking down . . . again?!
The bus slipped backward.
Everyone sniffed as the bus’s tired fumes began to circulate. The bus audibly strained, rallied, and spurted forward.
The bus stopped dead.
Everyone laughed and sighed and settled in for the wait. We were not that far away from where we had broken down the first time on the way to Ensenada.
Now, there is nothing like car trouble to bring out the worst in people, especially in circumstances where everyone is hot, sleep-deprived, and possibly constipated. And this was the not first, but the eighth time our bus had broken down this week.
But, on the contrary, I did not see the worst in these people. On that bus and a few other malfunctioning vehicles I saw a group of teens not only roll with the punches, but rise―beautifully, graciously, and virtuously―to the occasion.
The words virtue and teenager are not often used together in the same sentence (unless someone is explaining how to teach virtues to a passive, recalcitrant, incompetent, narcissistic, impetuous, media-obsessed, insecure, iGeneration teen). This attitude toward the moral ability of thirteen- to eighteen-year-olds precipitated some of the comments I received when I told people about chaperoning this trip. Such as:
That will be . . . fun? Ew, better you than me! You’re a saint!
I had some doubts myself. A week of sleeping on the floor of a church with teenagers? Head counts, late nights, handing out tampons, and dousing flirtations? Would I have to unravel teen summer dramas or give pep talks about having a good attitude? Can I even be “cool” for a week?
I was proved so wonderfully wrong. I saw all the fruits of the Spirit in full bloom in this group of teenagers, whose virtue was on active and vibrant display. So to the Immanuel Presbyterian Church youth group, I’d like to say thank you. (And because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, I’ll speak in generalities.)
Thank you for your self control when you could have just complained.
Instead of checking out, you stayed so faithful to the tasks given to you and worked with all your hearts.
You paid attention to the needs of others with gentleness and compassion.
You gave so generously out of the goodness of your experience and talents. And you truly have so much to give.
I saw your kindness when you connected with people different from you and when you spoke to one another.
You made patience look good—even when waiting for a bus (again).
You walked into situations that could have been anxiety-inducing and instead chose peace.
The joy you generated was infectious. Your willingness to laugh with each other is a powerful gift, as is your astounding ability to create inside jokes out of anything.
And finally, the greatest of these: thank you for the love you exhibited to each other and to people we met. I saw you embracing and celebrating each other’s quirks and strengths. When people see those gestures, it blesses them. You extended the hospitality of your group to other people with grace; thank you for making room for me. It was a privilege to see what good-hearted, gifted people you are right now and glimpse the wonderful individuals you are becoming.
There’s no other group of people I would rather be with when the bus breaks down.
After a trial-by-fire year as public school substitute teacher and fly-by-night freelancer, Julia will shed the tribulations of the work-world to embark on a MA in art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. If you are in town, she’ll gladly take you to a local museum. She enjoys walks, leopard print, and good conversation.