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What I Love About Dead Ends

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By Kurt Rietema

It happens every time. Sooner or later the path that was once so clear disappears into the bushes. The joy at the beginning of the journey grows weary. The ideas that once generated energy now spin further into the mud the harder they press the pedal. A cliff looms. A dead end fills them with existential dread. There is no way out.

When I first guided groups of local youth through our ImagineX social entrepreneurship program, I panicked when it was clear the kids were stuck. It was like being caught in a roundabout with no exit. There were so many times when I looked at the calendar knowing we were mere weeks (sometimes days!) away from being in front of a room filled with family, friends and ministry supporters eager to hear about what brilliant new life the young people would be bringing to our neighborhood. I knew that we had literally no solid ideas, just murky inklings of our own curiosities. But now, I welcome those moments. I expect them. I look forward to them. Why? Because when it feels like there is no way out, God shows up to make a way out of no way.

This summer we had the unique privilege of taking our process out of our neighborhood to a new one in Olathe where we did a collaboration with Mission Southside’s middle school ministry led by our friend, Dani Rogg Guillermo (a former student who went to Croc several times with us 15+ years ago!). There are a lot of similarities in our ministries – we both deal mainly with Latino middle schoolers from working class families – but also stark differences in terms of neighborhood structure. In Argentine, the signs of urban blight and disinvestment are obvious. In Olathe, the challenges of poverty are corralled in apartment complexes and covered up by a coat of paint.

Because of this, we had to do more rigorous excavation than I had been used to. We had to pull back the veil to see beyond the obvious signs of brokenness to discover where the bleeding was in their community. Where were the places that creation was crying out for the children of God to bring life out of death? (Romans 8)

One place that seemed particularly tender when pressed was the area of mental health in schools. One of the students attends a high school where there was a school shooting this past spring. While this is an extreme display of the mental health crisis, these kids were more focused on the students who silently suffer under the radar. They’re not the kids who are going to make news headlines, nor are they the ones who will cause enough trouble to land them in the principal’s office. They’re just kids who feel like their world is being chipped away, eroding underneath them, crumb by crumb and don’t know what to do.

The kids weren’t wrong. Major studies show that they’re swept up in a bigger mental health crisis affecting kids just like them. One in 5 Latino kids are depressed – more than any other minority group other than Native Americans. But at the same time, Latino kids receive mental health services at half of the rate of others. As we’ve seen time and time again in ImagineX, these young people were intuitively sensing the local symptoms of a systemic collapse.

The energy around doing something about the mental health of Latino kids was unmistakable. Every one of them felt it. But as soon as we brainstormed solutions to it, the energy faded. It all either sounded too impossible or too boring to keep them engaged. “Maybe we should just have a place where we can play video games.” I saw in real time the temptation to abandon the difficult and just do what sounded easy or fun. Something to numb and entertain rather than stage any real challenge to the status quo that made them miserable.

But instead of turning, we waited. In our lostness, we abandoned not the problem that they’d been circling around, but the tools whose usefulness had expired. We went off script. While they were stuck, they weren’t far off. I sensed that their problem was a failure of dreaming both too big as well as too small. They had a Goldilocks’ dilemma. They needed something that was juuuuuust right.

Then, some creative energy broke in the room. What if they brought levity to a serious problem? While their problems might not be a laughing matter, the way out of them might be. What if they thought of fun ways to de-stress with their friends? An emotional support animal petting zoo? A “wreck room” where they could get out their anger by breaking stuff (safely)? Slime-making classes where they could talk about shame? The change was palpable. Something from completely outside of them hovered over the chaotic waters of their primordial ideas, giving them shape and breathing life into them. The kids were ecstatic. There was nothing stopping them now.

Innovation and entrepreneurship often valorizes human effort and ingenuity. It can become all about “hustle” and grit and determination. In themselves, those values are fine, but it’s nothing that is going to get me out of bed every morning excited to teach kids some kind of business principles that are going to help them get along in our world. And when we have an inflated sense of our own capabilities and creativity, there’s no sense of mystery anymore. We squeeze God out of the equation.

I guess that’s what I love about the dead ends. When it feels like there is no way out, God makes a way out of no way. There are tools and methodologies that can be useful guides to point us in the right direction. But like every good fairytale, if there is an honest confrontation with the forces of evil, there is no map. There is no guide to defeating it. Victory comes to those humble enough to realize that it is possible only because of unearned, hidden gifts given freely from outside of themselves. It’s those dark corners with our backs against the wall when God gives us light.

About ImagineX: Youthfront’s four-week social entrepreneurship program gives middle school youth a chance to confront neighborhood challenges and creatively look for solutions. Students brainstorm about issues they see in their community, dream up creative solutions and then present their final concept to an audience of parents, neighbors and community leaders. Learn more about ImagineX online and contact our team if you’d like to get involved.

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