He stared right through me. I said his name over and over, but he just didn’t’ have the strength to look me in the eye or respond. If he stopped staring at the wall or dared to break the silence, then time would begin to move and he would be forced to figure out how to live life without her. He wasn’t ready. His mother was dead, and he was in shock.
As a youth pastor we’re suppose to have the right things to say in moments like this. We’re suppose to pray a prayer that will bring some peace to the situation. But I didn’t have the right thing to say, and I didn’t have a prayer that could ease his pain. He was paralyzed with fear. He was completely empty and broken. I was with him, but he was all alone. He had no father, and now he had no mother. Everyone he loved the most had been taken from him. He was only 13-years-old.
I shouted in my mind. I wanted to be strong for Matthew. We all tried to be strong for him. But on the inside, we were all lost and broken by his mother’s death. We were broken because a student we loved, who had grown up right before our eyes, who was part of our church family, was in so much pain. We were lost because his mom was not just a youth ministry parent, she was our sister and our friend.
Matthew’s mom fought cancer for years. Tired and ready to meet Jesus, she slipped away while her son was at school. He was picked up and brought straight to the church. We had no time to prepare or gather ourselves. For this mom and this little boy, the church had been their home, their family, and their refuge.
For the next several hours, days, and months, we would wrap our arms around Matthew and his grandparents. As we prepared for his mother’s memorial service, he smiled for the first time. His spirit seemed to lift. He asked, “Can we have butterflies? She loved butterflies!”
Finally, I could do something to bring relief to the tension and heartache Matthew was living in. Of course, we could have butterflies! We could have Alpacas if he wanted them. It was the one part of the memorial service that was all about Matthew. After the service, we gathered outside to release the butterflies. Hundreds of butterflies filled the sky, and Matthew was amazed at their beauty. He smiled and began to laugh. It was as if God lifted his burden of pain, and in this moment, he was overwhelmed with peace.
Matthew would go on to live with his grandparents. I saw him a few times after his mom’s service. Over the years I’ve thought about Matthew and prayed for him, but I’ve never seen him again. An entire decade has passed, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
A few days ago I received this text message from a friend who was a youth ministry volunteer all those years ago.
Hey, T. I was at the store today. As I was checking out, the clerk said, “Hey, I know you.” He was a handsome and polite young man, but I didn’t place him right away. It was Matthew!!! He is so awesome and sharp. We reconnected and exchanged numbers. It was so so good to see him. Next time I see him, I’ll tell him you said “hi”!
This is youth ministry. This is why the family of God is the most beautiful and amazing family ever.
Ten years after his life changed forever, Matthew runs into an old youth volunteer. Why did they reconnect so easily and why did they exchange numbers? Because when Matthew was a 13-year-old, he had a church family that loved him and his mother. He had a church family that broke with him, and fell at the feet of Jesus with him. Like being reunited with a family member, Matthew has been reunited with a youth volunteer who never stopped loving him and praying for him. Now, this volunteer has the opportunity to love and encourage him as a young adult.
Youth worker, you are part of the most amazing and powerful bond humans can share: the bond that comes from being woven into the family of God. This is youth ministry. We love those whom God places in our lives through unfathomable hurt and pain, victories, and failures…now and 10 years from now!
Be encouraged. God’s got this!