Saturday, December 10, 2011

Electric youth!

It's the holidays and one by one, the kids take turns at going to camp. Confirmation Camp, Christmas Camp, Altar Servers Camp, Youth Council Shepherds Camp, Youth Council Retreat. 3 days and 2 nights spent not in a fancy resort by the sea but in a church-owned building in various parts of Singapore.

The sleeping bag has never seen such action.

Over the past few weeks, at any one time, at least one of the kids would be off somewhere.

It's been fun for them and for me, given me fresh insight into a group of people I'm only just getting to know through the eyes of my kids - the youths. And what I have seen so far impresses me and leaves me with lots of food for thought.

Invariably, these camps are run by young people in their teens to early twenties. Usually they are from the youth ministries in church. Both Isaac and Gillian are highly active in these ministries themselves. Isaac faithfully serves mass twice a week at least, attends meetings with the altar server boys. And both he and Gillian are in the Youth Council. Gillian in fact recently stepped up to serve as a 'Shepherd', a youth leader in the YC.

I like the fact that these activities keep them busy and engaged. They get to know committed, responsible young people, serve the community and along the way, shape their own faith.

These kids are a good bunch. When Gillian was hospitalised, they trooped down en masse for a visit, leaving a huge home-made get-well-soon card peppered with cheerful wishes, photographs and names that even the doctor grew to be familiar with. They are unfailingly polite and courteous when we meet. 

Beyond this, I've seen them in action and I like what I see. The Risen Christ Children's League who organised the Christmas Camp is case in point. These kids - usually ranging from about 16 to 20 in age - run the Children's Liturgy at mass and they organise activities for the younger kids eg outings and camps during the holidays. They are such a cheery bunch, loaded with enthusiasm and ideas.

At the Christmas Camp, it can't have been easy looking after some 30 kids, some as young as six. But these kids took it all in their stride. They led creatively, patiently, with lots of laughter and improvisation. They managed the younger kids very well. I watched them keep the group in order, inspire the shy kids to get up on stage, manage the noisier ones, lead the singing with lots of smiles and encouragement and came mealtimes, they served the buffet line and were always, always polite with a smile.

Similarly the altar servers that Isaac work with are a great bunch. The older boys in their late teens take charge and lead the group. They behave with maturity and dignity sometimes beyond their years.

At a parents forum once, some parents gave them a hard time, pushing for some unreasonable requests. Sitting at the back of the room, I've rolled my eyes at these over-protective, critical, picky parents and wondered why they could not just leave the boys to manage the situation and work things out themselves - after all, the boys have done a great job so far. Once or twice I was tempted to tell these parents to just give the boys a break. But I didn't have to. The boys handled the prickly situations very well - always giving considered answers, always polite. They took every comment, suggestion seriously and explained clearly their stand. They never lost the "ma'am" and "sir" even when the comments grew heated. I was so proud of them and I wish I knew who their parents were - I'd shake their hands for raising such great kids.

At Isaac's confirmation camp, I realised that all the youth groups in church had been mobilised to facilitate and help in some way or other. They not only managed logistics and organisation but also facilitated discussion and reflection. How so that these kids had the maturity, faith and insight to share and to lead? To hear them speak, to hear them sing praise and worship, was stirring. I was seeing living faith in action.I was seeing youth leadership at work.

The catechists who worked with the kids for confirmation on their faith journeys from Sec 1 to Sec 3 are young people themselves, a few scant years older. I thought this was great - nothing like the young leading the young. Everything becomes immediate and more relevant. It is brilliant to get the young people to lead the faith journey. Far better than the old ways when adults did most of the teaching and the leadership.

Seeing kids lead like this gives me lots of hope for the future. Sure, not all of them are scholars, not all are brilliant in their studies, but if we get the youth of today - kids like these - growing up to fill the shoes of leaders in the future, then I think the future is in good hands.

Before my kids became teenagers, I'd fretted about them making the right choices in their friends and activities. Who has not heard horror stories of kids who went astray, made bad choices and paid the price? The image of young people - Gen X, Gen Y etc - was usually one that was self-absorbed, not altruistic, materialistic and irresponsible. They would be uncommunicative with their parents and there would be a huge chasm between kids and adults - or so I thought.

Then I met kids like these and it's set this common image up on end. The kids I know are not like this at all.

I tried to put my finger on it. Was it because of religion? Because these were church groups? But no. It went beyond religion.

In my work in the polytechnic, I get to meet and work with young people too. At least the ones I know are the same way - driven, committed, enthusiastic, creative, loyal and passionate in their views. See them lead in orientation camps. See how they manage themselves and others. They work very hard and contribute eagerly. Where was the irresponsibility, the angst, the selfishness, the arrogance often associated with Youth?

Couple of things I've reflected on - first, we must engage the youth. We must not be afraid to turn the reins over to them. We must give them a cause - something to believe in and then on our part, we must believe they have something to contribute and allow them to contribute. When they believe in something and when they are given enough trust and empowerment, you will witness the power of youth.

The power of the pack is also key and can move in either direction. Give someone lost and struggling a sense of belonging in a gang and that's where his loyalties will lie. Young people tend to search for a space they believe in, belong to and can call their own. If we can shepherd them into youth groups, and do it early enough, we can shape them for the better.

I am glad my kids are deeply involved in church groups. I never encouraged them to do so; they just found their own way in. These friends, their peers will give them a different validation and affirmation they need, that cannot be given by their parents. So I'm glad they're busy - out serving mass, facilitating a camp, decorating the church for Christmas - they are growing, learning and contributing productively. And most of all, I'm just glad they are in good hands.

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