Photo: Art Sanctuary
We drove from Philadelphia to the New Jersey shore in a rented 15-passenger van. It had a big chassis and a lurching, truck-y feel. I preferred to drive my own Dodge minivan. I knew it; I knew exactly where its front, back, and sides were when I parked; I knew how long it took to stop in the rain. But although we had no more than half a dozen regulars in the Church of the Advocate youth group, I had to plan on more: Inevitably they brought their siblings and friends. Lionel, a short boy with a slight build, always brought one, sometimes two, of the string of big girls he fell in love with. "Ms. Lorene, this is my friend. She said she never been to the seashore."
"Hello, darling. And who's this?"
"This my other friend."
While we loaded the big white van, they vied for the "shotgun" seat and radio control. I shouted for seat belts: one body, one belt; put it on and keep it on, period! They made their standard jokes about my adhering to a fictional "Sunday School handbook" and argued over radio stations. I had to turn down the volume in my head. The music was loud, and their voices slammed against it and bounced off the hard, metal interior. Someone at church had suggested that I use permission slips, like for school trips, but then I couldn't have accommodated the last-minute add-ons. Each time the ungainly van ollied over a pothole and the kids sang, "Oooooh!" in amusement park chorus, I was sorry I hadn't.
Each of us has needs, and they had many. A brother and sister had lost their mother in a fire. Years later the girl called to tell me that she was prosecuting her father for repeated, forced sexual abuse. Another boy won a bicycle when our group competed in a bike race. Within a year his mother sold the bike for drug money. Some of the kids had great parents who were absent because they worked two and three pieces of jobs. Without medical insurance, these kids received spotty health and dental care. Family therapy for the oceans of grief through which they waded only entered their lives in crises.
People in church smiled to see the youth group growing, but I suspected that churches only tolerate teens until their sexuality revs up, until they question the whack way grown-ups run things, or until they ask us to do more for them.
They asked, reasonably, for Saturday trips. Having taught at my old New England boarding school, I knew in my heart of hearts that Sundays-only work with teens was insufficient to their needs. But as the Buddha and my mother had told me, people are lazy.
"Saturdays?" Like I didn't understand.
Angel was the most articulate: "Sundays are fine for church, but really, Ms. Lorene, we need more than that."
Of course they did. We were huddled in a circle of battered folding chairs in a soup kitchen parish hall that smelled of bad digestion, swabbed over with ammonia. It was where we had coffee hour, as if in solidarity with those for whom the church universal prayed each week: "For the sick, the friendless, and the needy...for our family, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone...." Shame on me for making a 14-year-old spell it out.