This past Thursday, as our teens stood next to Wilhelmenia Hickson’s tiny house in Lake City, South Carolina, it was clear they were ready for action. Although not as cold as what our friends were facing in the Northeast, it was still quite chilly. While I grumbled a bit in my own head about the temperature, the teens were completely unfazed as they waited to hear what the day would bring. They looked adorable in their work glasses as they listening intently to Tuck, the team leader from Home Works of America, who would be responsible for guiding them in their task for the day: to help repair Mrs. Hickson’s roof and bathroom.
After talking about general safety, breaks, lunch and other banal details, Tuck took out a piece of paper and asked one of the teens to lead the group in a prayer reading. One of the teens, most likely for the first time in his life, read from the Gospel of Mark. I stood there, watching the faces of these Jewish teenagers, looking for signs of shock or surprise. I found none. The boy read his piece and handed back the sheet of paper, and with his friends, awaited the next instruction. Tuck then asked if there was a prayer that the teens said in “their church.” Without hesitation, several of them called out, “let’s say the shehechyanu”. The rest nodded and the group began to sing the Debbie Friedman melody for the prayer. I watched the teens and I watched Tuck, who was visibly moved by the lovely singing. The moment passed and a few minutes later the teens were ripping shingles off the roof, fixing toilets, using power tools and hauling trash.
Several times over the week of Alternative Winter Break, I watched as our teens faced what most individuals might find uncomfortable or difficult. The teens dealt with the realities of being Jewish in a very Christian community, and while there is no question they were impacted by it, they took it in stride, like everything else that week. We gave them laborious work to do and they did it without hesitation; when asked to wait while supplies were gathered, they waited; when asked to spend time with the elderly, helping them dust and tidy their small quarters, they did so without question. They listened to difficult stories about poverty, slavery, mass incarceration, Walter Scott and the Mother Emmanuel nine. They debriefed and decompressed together and many of them made promises to continue to learn, fight for racial justice and be an ally to those that need them.
What I learned “on my vacation” this year was that teenagers are strong, resilient, thoughtful and kind and, in this time when many are worried about the future, I say, bring it on… they can take it!