I spent last night in a room with a couple hundred friends hearing about the good things Young Life is doing in Greenville, SC. I met my own Young Life leader, Laura, about 11 years ago way back in Virginia. She was always hanging around my soccer team. After I didn't get into any of the Ivy Leagues colleges and my identify was shattered, she took me to get Mexican food and I told her that I was finally ready to listen to who this Jesus guy she kept talking about actually was. We ate burritos, and talked about it. The rest of the story from there is a real beauty; let me tell you about it.
Young Life club is the first place where I got up and told my life story because someone told me it was important -- my first public speaking engagement. I spent summers at Rockbridge and Frontier Ranch. I was a leader at Byrnes High School long before I worked there as a counselor, and I got to be loud and talk about God and do life with girls there who I am still friends with now. We had Bible study and talked about boys, and soccer, and One Tree Hill -- and they were the first people, in our "spot" at Ice Cream & Coffee Beans, who I told when I decided to take a medical leave of absence from college, so I could go home and focus on healing and figuring out my mental health. (And not a lot has changed -- some of them are dating men who they will marry, and we still talk about hard things over brunch when they are in town, and they are stuck with me for life, just like I said.)
While I was figuring out how to heal, Windy Gap is where I'd spend weekends running the ropes course in the snow by day and listening to speakers like Steve Chesney by night, who reminded me that God had integrity, and that I could trust His voice even when I couldn't see His hand. I didn't really do either of those at the time, if I am being honest, but man -- it helped so much to be in a place that whispered it to me constantly.
I ended up interning there that summer, my sanctuary in so many ways -- still battling depression, except I had accepted that that was just how the rest of my life was going to be. I learned to fish and love McDonald's and taught people how to square dance. I was so well-loved there; I had 14 roommates who poured love out just by breathing -- so imagine a one-on-one conversation. My mentors Jenny Moffat and Kayla Simoneaux caught on to my struggles so quickly, and in pure love, pulled me in for a meeting and told me that barely existing was not the abundant life that God had called me to, and that I was worth actual healing, and I called a new doctor that day. (After Maggie's murder, when the incessant calls from Inside Edition and Fox News came, there was no other place I was interested in for seeking refuge, and I hid out in the Adult Guest Lodge for a week for Healing, Part 477.)
I spent a summer working at Wilderness Ranch, traversing remote trails in Colorado, making hot chocolate with nutmeg and cinnamon and treated creek water and singing Psalms out loud from the tops of mountain peaks. I was still so depressed, but I learned how to pray from my guts there, and that God really does love me -- all the parts of me, even all the dark and twisty parts, even and especially if I was depressed forever and ever, and even if I never did get my act together. I learned how to breathe at the Ranch, in those mountains.
Before my Wofford graduation, my YL team leader, Angie Ratterree (who kept me in her community even though I only really had the relational capacity to run Power Points at club) sat with me in a Starbucks and told me me that my walk with depression was going to be a superpower for the rest of my life, if I would only stop treating it like a handicap.
When I got to grad school, I stopped being a leader, but I got to be Team Mom to the college leaders in Boone, and make them hot chocolate with cinnamon and nutmeg, while they sat in my big green chair talking to me about life and God and hard things. It's the same chair Maggie would sit in, but cross-legged.
I sat cross-legged on a couch with my friends Ashley and Sam a couple of weeks ago here in Greenville, after dropping off all my old YL t-shirts. I don't wear them, and a high schooler will enjoy the shirt from when Bermuda came to Windy Gap way more than I will.) Before I left, Ashley handed me an invitation to the Greenville Young Life Banquet: "You should come! I have a seat at my table for you!"
And last night. Oh, last night I got to hear stories from three high school kids who sew me, eleven years ago -- met Jesus through Young Life, and I could see sixteen-year-old me in those stories. The full-circle-ness of this ministry astounds me. I do not know where my story would have gone without it -- I really do not.
To my YL leader angels and friends of this ministry -- please, for the love, do not stop telling kids about how much Jesus loves them exactly right where they are -- that they have a seat at the table, and all of their doubts and questions and dark and twisty parts can come, too. Their leaders were there, too. I feel so thankful to have been a part of a ministry that shepherded me and held me so well, even though I didn't see it all the way at the time. I sure did last night, teary-eyed.
And, most of all, to Laura Wright -- thank you for not giving up on this mission before you got to me. Thank you for changing the life of that soccer player in the Harvard hoodie. None of us knew how beautiful this story was going to be, in that hallway, or at those camps -- but we do now. So thank you, and keep going.