On Holy and Frozen Ground | #DSSDoesAlaska 2020

Precious BaptismFor weeks I’ve lacked the words I felt could do this year’s #DSSDoesAlaska trip justice. (Less than ideal when you know you have fundraising updates and newsletters to write…) The only words I’ve been able to muster have been to tell friends and supporters that that week was very likely the highlight of my nearly 13 years at the Denver Street School. And honestly? I’m still not able to pinpoint why. Last year, we watched the Lord radically break down walls for two of our students over this trip. That trip culminated in a friend of mine taking a chainsaw and cutting a baptismal hole in the 18” thick ice so that my vice principal and I could baptize one of our seniors. In just one week, we witnessed radical transformation and I am still mind blown when I think about it.

This year, nothing overly dramatic happened. Instead, I had the opportunity to spend 8 days doing the things I love most with a team of 7 DSS students and 6 of their teachers– all of whom were insanely engaged with the gospel and dedicated to pushing into its transforming power. 

We cooked and ate meals together each day, and students experienced new cultures and states. We enjoyed snowmachining, flying in tiny planes, skiing, snowboarding, ice fishing, trapping, dancing, sledding, bonfires, and so much more after our daily conference sessions. And yet, the “in between” moments when we watched students learn to truly connect with those around them, undistracted by technology and the drama of their home lives, may have been my favorite… Every night at curfew, we would scoot the boys out of the main house. And every night all of the students were genuinely sad to have to be apart, even long enough to sleep. “Miss, we’re a family! You can’t tear a family apart like this…” they would tease as I ushered them out the door and back to their cabin.  

#DSSDoesAlaska / Journey to the High Places Conference 2020 Highlight Reel

As the “outside world” began shutting down due to the spread of the Coronavirus, we were safe and sound in a small village, 165 miles away from the nearest city, with only one working phone. Sporadic calls home to loved ones and the unbelievable updates they gave us reminded us that the world did not stop spinning in our absence. Similarly, DSS did not stop being DSS just because we were in Alaska. We saw students work hard to process through trauma, and gently stood by them as they had moments of meltdown and breakthrough, similar to what we experience at DSS on a daily basis. As teachers, we had opportunities to practice patience and grace, as hell hath no fury like DSS students being “forced” to hike through the snow to a glacier-capped waterfall and none of our students are “morning people”.

While most phone calls home yielded updates about school closures and new city policies, one phone call brought us all to our knees. It was news that a young man, who had been a good friend of two of the students with us in Alaska, had been shot and killed the night before. As teachers tried to calm one of the grief-ridden students down, he turned and punched a solid wood end table, dealing with his grief and shock the most familiar way he knew how. But then, he cried. And as a team, we gathered around him. One of his basketball teammates held him while he wept. Teachers and his peers held his feet and shoulders as we prayed and cried for everyone back in Denver who had been thrown headlong into grief overnight. As I looked around, I discreetly slid off my shoes, acutely aware that we were all suddenly on Holy ground.

That moment was a microcosm of what the Journey to the High Places Conference is all about. This conference and trip was created four years ago specifically for Denver Street School students to provide them a safe place to work through the trauma and grief in their lives. It’s about leaning in, learning to hold one anothers’ stories tenderly, and choosing to believe in the Hope of the Gospel that is woven through every lesson plan and conversation at the Denver Street School.

We circled back to Philippians 3:12 a few times throughout our time in Alaska– repeating Paul’s words over our students: “Not that I have already obtained {perfection}, but I press on to make {the gospel} my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own” (English Standard Version). 

It’s a long race, walking with Jesus… working at DSS… Some days the transformation in our students is dramatic and evident. Some days it’s slow and steady and sweet. Regardless, we press on, and what a joy it is to watch our students slowly make the gospel their own as they learn the depths of Christ’s love for them and the lengths He went to to make them His own. 

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