If You Really Knew Me
Tommy hates the illness that makes his dad’s behavior so unpredictable. The whole family must tip-toe around him for fear of becoming the butt of his anger.
Then he confiscates Tommy’s bike, and Tommy meets Carrie on the school bus. With nobody else to talk to, he strikes up a conversation with her and she even laughs at his jokes. But she never says much about herself. Perhaps something is wrong.
When Elise learns that Carrie writes songs, she wants to have her for a friend. But Carrie hardly ever talks. How can you make friends with someone who doesn't say anything?
But then Carrie disappears. Is it Elise's fault for not trying hard enough to be her friend? Or is Tommy correct in his assumption that she is hiding from an abusive family? Just to make sure, they decide to help her stay hidden.
This book came out of the five years I spent at Youth for Christ working with middle school students. Although Tommy Carrie, and Elise are fictional characters, and they are not based on kids I met, they are inspired by my experiences then.
My friend and mentor in youth ministry was Anna-Marie Valles. She is also a character in Tommy, Carrie, and Elise’s story where she helps them to make sense of some of the questions they have.
We don’t get to know her well in the book, but I had a chat with her recently about youth ministry and here is an extract from that conversation. I think you will enjoy getting to know her better.
Alison: Do you work mainly with kids like Tommy and Carrie who don't have any knowledge of Jesus or like Elise who is trying to work out how her faith applies to her life?
AMV: My work with Youth for Christ brought me into contact with kids from different backgrounds. I worked with kids exactly like Tommy and Carrie and Elise.
Alison: In the story, Elise shares her problems with you. Do you find teens want to talk to an adult about their problems?
AMV: Kids are hungry to be able to unload their stories on people who are willing to listen. In one club a student mentioned this was the only place that he had to share. All day, his teachers, his parents and even his coaches were telling him what to do. But club was a space where people were asking him, “How are you feeling?” “What are your thoughts on this?” He was shocked that he had a place to share his opinions.
Alison: You were only eighteen when you started in youth ministry. After all these years, how do you stay current so kids still want to talk with you?
AMV: We have bought into the stereotype that kids open up to that hipster, 24-year-old male youth pastor. Yes, kids are drawn to people like that but it's not just that type of person. When we only look for that person, we leave out others who bring so much to the table.
I’ve seen people who are a lot older whom kids are drawn to. It's just being a person who is willing to engage in them, to create a safe space for them, who will be ready to accept them wherever they are in their journey with Jesus. I think of one Youth for Christ staff person who was in his 80s and was still on campus and sharing Jesus with high school students.
How do I stay relevant? As you are present, you become relevant, because you hear what's going on with kids and their stories. You have to come to kids with a willingness to learn. “Tell me what's going on?” “Tell me what TikTok is. I don't know.”
Alison: Not being embarrassed about not knowing. They know you don't know so there's no point pretending that you do. And don't try to talk their slang. I was asking a student about slang so I could write my characters realistically, and she looked at me as though to say, “Oh, no. Don’t try to talk like us.” She was relieved when I told her why I wanted to know.
AMV: Exactly. They don't want someone to mimic them. We have to come to the point where we're able to say, “I am from a different generation than you are. I see things differently. But I'm willing to see through your lens if you're able to share that with me.”
Alison: Do you find that as you get older, worries about aging-out disappear? I think the aging- out fear begins in your mid-20s when you realize, I thought I knew the modern culture, but I don’t anymore.
AMV: Yes, I think so. When you're young, you're more worried about what's going to happen when I lose my youth.
Alison: And then when you lose it you find, I have things to offer because of my experience.
AMV: Right. And you realize that God can use any vessel. It's not about having to appear a certain way.
Alison: You now work as a youth pastor. What is different and the same about the two ministries?
AMV: The attitude I had before was that I would never work with just church kids because God called me to evangelism. But now I think the two parts of youth work are evangelism and discipleship. In the parachurch, evangelism is a bigger piece, but in the church, it switches so that discipleship is the bigger piece. But you still have both of those functioning. Sometimes the church kids themselves aren't followers of Jesus.
Alison: I know. I’ve seen students who grew up in Christian families, but they don't get it, and I find myself praying, “How can I help them to understand this?”
AMV: They can think they have it all together because they were confirmed or baptized or fill in the blank. But when you talk to them, you realize they're not engaging in a lifestyle that is reflective of Christ.
Alison: The profits from this book will be used to send kids to camp. Why is this important to you?
AMV: Youth ministry is all about building relationships, so you create trust, so students will listen to the gospel. And ultimately, to have them build a personal relationship with Jesus. It's all relational.
There are so many things going on in our world and kids are becoming a little bit more jaded than in the past. So that trust can take a little longer to build. The beauty of camps is that they take kids away from their environment and you're able to create a bond in one week that could take two years without.
It also allows them to hear from God. A young person needs to hear the gospel presented in different ways by different people to truly understand it. Going to camp exposes them to different speakers. I'm not the only conduit to the gospel, and other people’s creativity and presentation may reach my students in a way that I haven't been able to.
I do have to say, though, in the last five to ten years, camps don't have the draw that they did in the past. There's so much competition for students’ time, and I think we'll see it more because of the pandemic. Kids’ phones give them everything at their fingertips, and they’re so much more isolated. They want to stay home and play games on their phone. They want to stream movies rather than going to the theater. Their way of engaging with their friends is being online playing games. And so, it's a lot harder to say, “Let's go to camp,” because they know they're leaving their comforts behind. I can't play video games for a week. I can't sleep in. I can't hang out with my friends. And it's a lot scarier for them to disengage from their world.
But camp helps create the community they need and encourages them to engage in physical activity.
I love camp, but what saddens me is not everyone can go because they are costly. My desire is that every student who wants to go will have the opportunity to do so.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai