Even the name sounds odd, maybe even a little corny: “Church youth group reunion”. Who has ever heard of that before? Our youth minister from 1979-1982, Jim Gallery, had never heard of it. None of us on the planning committee had ever heard of it. Perhaps other groups have had them; surely they have.
But it sounds like a stretch. High school reunions are expected. College reunions are commonplace. But youth group reunions?
I don’t know what I expected. Six years ago, about half of a small group of us who had taken a mission trip to Colorado in 1982 gathered for a twenty-year reunion. With spouses, that was about 12 people. It was fun. We looked at some slides and reminisced. It was a couple of hours, and it was done. We left with talk of maybe doing “a big reunion” with “the whole youth group” some day.
So when Jody suggested that it was time for the “big reunion”, I knew what she was talking about. I just did not know what to expect. I put expectations on hold as I shifted into organization mode – that is, after all, my forte. I suggested assignments for the committee – Jody would handle planning the worship service; Hallie would be in charge of pictures (name tags, slide shows, displays, whatever); Chris (who has the world’s largest collection of music) would put together our sound tracks with music from the era, and because he knows Dr. Roebuck, the current pastor of our youth group’s old church, Chris would be our liaison with the church; Kristen and Karen would be in charge of local arrangements in Nashville. Me? I would be the communications guy – I would compile the invitation list, contact the old youth group and youth workers, collect the money, and emcee the program. Right down my alley.
It is easy for me to organize. Typing emails and making lists and coming up with assignments. Keeps my mind off of thinking about what is coming.
Oh, I guess I had some ideas – we would see old friends, and we would see people that maybe we did not think of as friends. We would hug and watch slides and swap stories. Maybe Jim would give a devotional talk and remind us why we respected him so much twenty-something years ago.
Fast forward to now, almost a week after the reunion. I had no idea what was coming. Organization can only take you so far.
Woodmont Baptist Church in Nashville was quite the happening place for a teenager in the late 70s: mission trips to Chicago; summer youth directors; youth choir singing “Celebrate Life”; church services on TV every week with a pastor who knew the youth group members by name and who spoke a language we understood, even as he made news in town and stood tall for his beliefs. The summer after sixth grade was the longest summer for most of us, because we saw the youth’s activities, and we were not yet a part of the group, not until Labor Day when school would start and we would be in junior high and officially – at least in the Baptist world – be “youth”.
In 1978, the Woodmont youth world changed, and for the better. First, Woodmont called a new minister of music, Joe Morrell, who was young and funny and knew how to do youth choir – musicals and trips and electric gathering music and how to organize setting up the sound system and the risers and the puppet stage all in thirteen minutes. Joe led what ended up as our last mission trip to Chicago, and I knew I was in for a ride.
At Christmas break of 8th grade, at our mid-winter youth retreat, we met for the first time Jim Gallery. Woodmont had decided to call its first full-time minister of youth (and singles, for a while), and Jim was the guy. Joe knew him from somewhere, and it quickly became obvious that the two of them were cut from the same cloth – they were very different, but as a team they could lead us to do remarkable things.
And I think we did remarkable things, for a while. 1979 in Dauphin Island, Alabama. 1980 in Skidway Lake, Michigan. 1981 in Oscoda, Michigan. 1982 in Crested Butte, Colorado. We led Bible Schools and Backyard Bible Clubs. We worked, a little, in places that needed painting done and lunches packed and surveys taken. We did “street ministry” – can you imagine today sending groups of two or three teens out into the street, unscripted, to talk to strangers about Jesus? But we did it. And of course, we sang. Songs that we still remember, even if we don’t think we remember. Melodies that ranged from country to gospel to maybe even a little bit of rock-n-roll (at least as much as we could get away with back in the day), all accompanied on those trips by canned tracks blaring from those speakers that we could set up in thirteen minutes.
And we played. We played games. We played pranks. We played instruments. We laughed and we cried and gathered for “share time” every night.
We all remember different things from share time. What I remember are two things: listening to people work through early, immature experiences with the Holy Spirit by talking out loud and being affirmed by others who were having the same embryonic steps of discipleship; and hearing Mark West remind us that the “mountaintop” feeling we were having would go away, but we could still… when we got home … we could still serve Christ and love each other and grow as Christians.
Our youth group experience was not only mission trips, of course. I would not even say that the mission trips were the best of our experiences. At the time, we thought they were; but in retrospect, I would say that the mission trips served more as bookmarks of our time together, mileposts in our development.
We had the weekly schedule – looking back it is tempting to call it a “grind”, but we did not think of that way (although I am sure our parents were tempted to!) – of twenty-to-thirty minute drive to church, Sunday School, worship, twenty-to-thirty minute drive home, home for about 3 hours, twenty-to-thirty minute drive back, youth choir, dinner, training union or discipleship training or church training or whatever the Board-approved name for it was at the moment, then worship again. Many Sunday nights, we added yet another hour to the schedule with a fellowship, and after all that, we still found time to go to Shoney’s or just go out to the top of the big steps at the Belle Meade Boulevard end of Warner Park at the top of the hill, where we could look at the lights and talk and, yes, sing still some more. Then twenty to thirty minutes to drive home.
There were retreats and summers full of special events and Thursday night Happenings, lock-ins, visits to Point Mallard and the Wave Pool, work at the Children’s Home, and still more Sunday School-worship-choir-dinner-training-worship-fellowship Sundays.
How could we not have grown to know each other intimately through all of that? How could we not have forged relationships that now, almost thirty years later, are picked up like precious jewels and treasured all the more?
There was, of course, more to it than schedules and friendships. There was Jesus. Many of us had been baptized as children, and I am sure that we were Christians before Jim and Joe came into our lives, but we had very little clue what that meant beyond the fact that we were going to heaven. But in those youth group years, we studied and we learned and we questioned. We struggled, no doubt. Some of us knew the Bible verses better than others did, and some of us could win the Junior High Sunday School contests because we were quick on the trigger on these little electric mock-ups we used for our games, but we all struggled. Still, Jesus found His way into our lives. Jim modeled Him. Joe proclaimed Him as he taught us how to proclaim Him. Volunteer leaders demonstrated Christ’s love to us. We knew there was something real there. We may have been clueless about the deepest meaning of “Come to me all who labor, and are heavy-laden down, and I’ll give you rest”, but we knew that Jesus was real and good and present and loving, and we knew that we wanted to do what He called us to do. For many of us, that meant walking an aisle and surrendering to “full-time Christian service”, and we thought that required seminary and vocational Christian careers. For some of us, that call did require just that; for others of us, our careers are “secular”, but our “full-time Christian service” continues.
I am not quite as Pollyanna as I sound. I know that there were many of us who did not mature in our faiths very much during those years. I know that there were many of us who did some very non-Christian – or at least non-church – kinds of things during those years. We certainly do them now. We were teenagers in the 70s and 80s, and the world around us touched and polluted us like it did everybody else. But we, as a group, were trying to be different. This reunion proves it.
So, wow, that is a very long introduction to reflections on this reunion, where more than fifty "alumni youth" and a dozen or so former youth workers gathered. But in fact it is not just intro, because a big part of my “reflecting” on this reunion is my reflecting on those days.
Here is what I take away from the reunion:
1. I was thrilled with literally every conversation I had with everybody who came back. People who were not my “close friends” in 1981 are, today, just as worthy of my attention as those whom I counted as my closest friends. Maybe the exclusion was my fault – maybe I just assumed certain people did not care for me, or maybe (if I really admit it), I was pretty elitist as a big-shot youth. If I overlooked you or was rude to you and you are reading this, I apologize to you. Every person at the reunion was warm and just as happy as I was to be there. As I renewed friendships and talked with Jeff and Carmen and Linda and Alyson and Donna and Jimmy and countless others, I was awed by the power of relationships forged almost thirty years ago. We walked a special road together, and we are bound.
2. Despite our youth group and our spirituality and our strong church and our best-laid plans, our group of people has been hit by the world like everybody else has. Obvious wounds like the loss of parents, the loss of a child, the loss of a spouse, the inability to walk, divorce, bankruptcy, and addictions were present. Less obvious but just as wounding were the scars of defeat, betrayal, personal failure, family illness, weakness, disappointment, sin. In Kevin’s marvelous words, we are all cracked vases with new vocabularies.
3. I missed people. I wished that Karen and Becky and Bill and Jud and Patti and Leanne and Emily and Amy and Terri and Scott and Anne and Lillian and a couple of dozen others could have come. Please don’t be offended if I left your name out. I missed Tim and Len and Barry and Crystal and Lisa and Robin and another Karen and another Karen and Mike and Calvin and Laura and countless others. I just can’t list all the names. But I missed you.
4. I missed other people too. Jenny Roberts. Jack Welch, Sr. Mr. and Mrs. Reasons. Howard Stevens. The memories are flooding back now.
5. Like everyone else there, I was swept up in the flow of the weekend, which, however accidentally it was organized, ended up taking us perfectly from the casual picnic where we stood around and talked through the dinner and program of Saturday night to a worship service where we were primed for God to move. And move He did. Bryan, your words (“God sent me healing for a wound I did not even know I had”) were outdone only by your countenance. Joe, you picked choruses that we had sung and felt, and you took us back to another time. Carmen, I cannot begin to say what I felt because I cannot articulate it – you are simply amazing, and God is not finished with you. Jim, your calm and your words were balm for the soul, as always.
6. And Kevin… is it presumptuous to say that I am proud of you? I know that in all practical terms we are in the same age group, but I can’t help it if I still see you as Jody’s little brother. Your words were so well chosen, but it was your demeanor, your readiness to stand up and speak for us as well as speak to us that made me proud. You stepped up and were our pastor.
And there is one thing more.
In the aftermath of the weekend, as Kristen and I debriefed on what had happened, she articulated what I had been struggling to find words to say. In Kristen’s words, the weekend confirmed for us that what we all remember from youth group days was “real.” I think what Kristen means is that, now, nearly thirty years later, it can be so easy for us to chalk our youth group experiences up to the frenzy of hormones and performance and life discoveries. And, of course, we were caught up in hormones and the joy of performance and the discovery of what life has to offer during those years of adolescence and budding adulthood. But that is not all. We found something more, something real. We cared for each other in ways beyond what most people – teenaged or otherwise – ever find. We experienced things that most people miss. We gave. We forgave. We helped. We joined together. We loved.
And we worshiped. Oh, how we worshiped! On Sunday mornings and Sunday nights in the big room with the tile missing in the ceiling… in the choir room, as we learned the songs that remain within us still… in tents in Michigan and on beaches in Alabama and on mountainsides in Colorado… in dormitories and fellowship halls and campgrounds and crammed hotel rooms during share times when, as Kevin says, time stood still… on retreats. We met Jesus and we exalted God and we felt the movement of the Holy Spirit.
And we still do. It is real. Our relationships are real. He is real. Some of us have walked a long way since our last real experience with God; others of us rely on a daily relationship with Him. Either way, we re-anchor ourselves when we are certain of the reality of what we experienced then. And last weekend reminded us that we are, in fact, yes indeed, certain.
So that is where I leave it. A simple reunion of fifty or so middle-aged folks who once walked a sacred road together as children-becoming-adults. A dozen or so older adults who shepherded our walk and who came to a reunion to see what we have become and maybe to be reminded themselves of a distant reality. Parents who came to a worship service and found more than they expected.
Maybe not so simple. But real.
To each of you who came, and to those who were not able to come, I love you. May the road rise to meet you. May the wind blow at your back. May the sun shine warmly on your face. May the rains fall softly on your fields. And, until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.