Yesterday at church we got a call from a young man who was looking for a place he could do 10 hours of community service. Before Thursday.
And already at this point in the story, everyone to whom I've told it has made some assumptions about this young man.
When I add in his name, which (let's just say) is not a "typical American name" (even though it is), the assumptions solidify. If I told you his skin color, we wouldn't even need to say anything more beyond "required community service" and we'd have a complete picture in our minds.
This is problematic on so many levels.
We'll start with just two things:
1. When did community service become a punishment? And why? I have so many issues with that. Probably its own blog post.
2. Why is our first assumption--often our only assumption--that this young man must have gotten into trouble?
I remember being about his age and filling out my National Honor Society paperwork. At the last minute. And looking at the requirement for community service hours and wondering how to pull that off.
I remember being in seminary and filling out paperwork about myself and wondering if something I technically got paid for, but badly, could still count as "service to the wider church."
A couple of years ago the youth group was doing an Earth Day service project cleaning up trash in a local park, and nearly every conversation we had with community members using the park was about kids "serving their time," not about kids giving back or kids being good citizens or kids caring about their community. Afterward the youth and I talked about that feeling of being stared at like they're criminals, and the assumption that the only reason they would go clean up a city park is because they were paying off some kind of debt to society.
It's possible that this young man needs community service hours for a scholarship, for a Boy Scout requirement, for a club at school, or for his own church. Or it's possible that he's been in trouble--whether of his own volition or by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why is one of those our go-to thought? (and let's not pretend it isn't…every conversation I've had about this situation has made clear what people's first thoughts are. Even mine, I regret to say.)
A few years ago I was at a David LaMotte event where he said something about "at risk youth" and how that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because at-risk always means something bad. No one is ever at risk of being awesome.
What if we--ESPECIALLY those of us in the church, who have been admonished to think about whatever is good, to look for the image of God in one another, to bear one another's burdens--what if we first assumed people were at risk of being awesome?
That's a prophecy I'd love to see fulfill itself. And when this young man comes back to church after school today for another 3 hours, I plan to make sure he knows that's what I expect. :-)