They don’t prepare you for everything in bible college. As a youth ministry major, I had taken classes on youth culture, read about some of the more ugly things that were happening in the lives of teens and learned what advice experts had to give on a wide variety of issues.
Nothing could prepare me for what I would see with my own eyes.
In 2006, as a full of myself-first year-fresh out of college youth pastor, I found myself working with a few students who were cutting. I had read about it, I had prepared for it, I knew my legal responsibility and our church position on how to handle this kind of situation but I wasn’t prepared. The first day one of these kids came into my office, handed me their sharp object and asked for prayer, I couldn’t be ready for that. The day one student pulled back her armband so a few of us could put our hands on her scars and pray for them, I couldn’t be ready for that. At one point, I found myself working with multiple students and their families to overcome cutting and the list of other issues that go along with it like depression, alcoholism, and drug use. In each family, I found myself banding together with parents who were crushed, students who were hurting and friends who were powerless to help. Through the power of Jesus Christ and with methods like prayer, accountability and professional therapy, each of those students in the long haul has recovered.
There were some dark days during those times, moments were I never thought we would see recovery:
Picking up drunk family members to take them to the E.R. at 3am and spending the entire night at a hospital after a suidicde attempt.
Coming home from a retreat and finding that the behavior had spread to a younger student looking for some attention.
Times when I felt like our church, our volunteers, the families and my wife and I were making no impact in the lives of these students.
Days when I would consult with another youth pastor dealing with the same situation for longer than us who had seen no recovery for their students.
It was during those days that I set out to be an expert for our students and families. I got together lists of counselors who could deal with this issue, I trained all of our volunteers on how to respond when a student told you something like this, I put together articles and reading lists for parents whose students were dealing with the issue, I put together sets of parents dealing with the same issue for prayer and support. I scoured the internet for resources.
In that scouring, I came across a myspace page with a story on it. A group of people were selling tshirts to raise money for a friend to get treatment, the shirts had a strange statement that read “To Write Love On Her Arms”. I read the story, no more than a few pages about a group of people dealing with some of the same issues as we were. A few people who came together to help a friend detox so she could get into a facility to be treated. As I read the story, I weeped. It was just a post on myspace but I read the story and I sobbed in my office for over an hour.
I’m not sure I had processed everything until I heard someone else’s story. it’s funny how we fail to process our pain sometimes, it can often be the story of another person that moves me to tears. I have learned in my life to pay attention to tears, they point me in a direction that meets a deep longing in my heart.
Upon stumbling on this page, I knew I was not alone in trying to fight this darkness. TWLOHA wasn’t providing anything specific, they weren’t resourcing my situation, they were doing what i was doing: helping a friend in a tough spot who needed Jesus and some community to overcome a terrible situation. I was instantly a raving fan, I ordered a shirt, it was all I could do to support their cause. This was literally a movment birthed from a story that needed a place to be shared.
Since those early days, TWLOHA has not stopped telling that story, they have created a platform and now provide resources to anyone dealing with depression, suicide, self injury and substance abuse. They have found the places that the story resonates and told it live, in videos and through the web. Currently they are one of the most infulential non-profit users of social media in the world. They have 336,000 friends on myspace, 1.1 million friends on facebook, and 144,000 followers on twitter. When USAtoday came up with a promotion to give away a full page add(189,000 value) to the non profit who could get the most people to use a certain hashtag, TWLOHA acted and won the contest because of their social media community.
This is the ad that ran in the USAtoday:
I am a proud supporter of this organization and I am fascinated at how they were able to take a story and turn it into an organization that connects millions of people and results in positive change in their lives. The church might learn a lot from an organization like this. Let’s see: a powerful story, boldness to share it, using social media as one platform to do so, seems easy enough. But we do not always get it right and I will comment next on how we misuse social media and do an injustice to our story. There are also limitations to social media and I’ll comment on that as well. Stay tuned.