It was my first overnight outing with the first group of teenage offenders referred to me by the juvenile court. Their probation officer would be going along for support, he said, but I’m reasonably sure it was more about checking out the kind of program I was running. I wanted it to be a high adventure experience for kids who had never been out of the city. “Mountain climbing,” I had described it to them.
It was nearly noon before I had everyone rounded up and in the van – a bit later than I had planned. We headed off to “the mountains” – the north Georgia mountains that didn’t compare to Everest, but were higher than any of the boys had ever seen in person. I had identified a suitable campsite with a breathtaking view on a level spot atop a 200-foot precipice. The cliff looked insurmountable – clearly an adrenaline-rush for daring adolescent males. The challenge of the day was to start in the valley, scale the “mountain,” and make it up over the top to our campsite in time for a campfire feast.
After giving the boys some basic “mountaineering” safety instructions, we began the climb. Their probation officer led the way and I brought up the rear. The first leg of the climb was easy enough, but the pace slowed the higher we went. There were loose rocks that had to be avoided, and tree roots that would not support the weight of a human body. Our lead man constantly called out directions, warnings, and course changes. The ascent was taking much longer than I had anticipated. By late afternoon the twelve of us were still strung out in a vertical line on the side of the cliff and I was beginning to get worried.
The sun was just setting when the first climbers made it to the top. Their cheers echoed down the canyon – heartening sounds for those still clinging to the side of the cliff. Shadows deepened as the climbers continued to inch their way upward. With no flashlights to illuminate the way it was becoming more difficult to see which route to follow and what footholds to trust. Finally, with darkness fast closing in, the last climber (me!) was pulled up over the top by the waiting conquerors. What exhilaration! (What stupidity!)
Around the campfire that evening I had an inspired moment. I told the boys about the climb of life. I told them that it was a dangerous journey filled with loose rocks and unsafe roots – temptations and lures that could harm or destroy them. I told them that in order to make it safely to the top they would need a trustworthy guide. That guide was Jesus. He had gone before and would lead them safely to the top. I asked if any of them would like to make Jesus the guide of their life. To my utter surprise every hand went up! I had them repeat a simple prayer of placing their trust in Jesus. It was an awesome moment!
The next day back in the city, as I dropped the boys off at their homes, I told them I would be picking them up the following Wednesday for a bible study. As followers of Christ, I told them, it was important to learn what He taught us so we could apply it to our “climb”. Everyone agreed. But the following Wednesday when I drove to their homes, only one of the ten showed up. Perhaps I had not communicated clearly enough, so over the next few days I tracked each of them down to tell them personally about the rescheduled time for our bible study. Again only one kid showed. I was dismayed. Where was the spiritual appetite of these young believers? I did observe, however, that when I announced plans to go mini-bike riding on the weekend, everyone showed up – early!
It finally dawned on me that their mountaintop “conversion experience” was not the life-changing spiritual event I had supposed. Their raised hands and repeated prayer was their vote to come on another camping trip. They had read me well, figured out my agenda, and played along. It took many months of forging trust (amidst countless cons and deceptions) for our relationships to deepen enough to allow honest sharing. And many more months for this naïve youth worker to figure out that spiritual conversion might not always fit the basic four-spiritual-laws method I had been taught.
Over time, most of the boys succumbed to the under-tow of the street. Only one of them grew steadily in faith and became a responsible husband, father and active church member. The rest did recurring stretches of prison time. Three were killed in street violence. Surprisingly, after more than four decades, I still get calls from some of those who survive, “reporting in” on events in their lives – the birth of a grandchild, the death of a mother, a job that has worked out. And memories, unforgettable childhood memories of camping trips and mini-bike riding and insights they remember from our talks – truths that after forty years have somehow remain embedded in their spirits. And sometimes they even find the emotional courage to express their gratitude.