To love a murderer on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, & every day after

Working at the Denver Street School has ruined me for murderers: I’ve come to realize I love them and it regularly breaks my heart.

A few years back, my vice-principal and I started a running text chain. Some days it’s a mix of teaching memes and funny student quotes, but there are other days where we somberly exchange news articles with headlines written about our students.

This year alone we’ve exchanged two articles. The first explained that a prior student had been arrested for killing his three-month old daughter (accidentally or not, we’re still not sure). The second was a list of criminal charges a student from two years ago is facing. As I write this, he is awaiting arraignment for nine felony charges– including first-degree murder, first-, second-, and third-degree assault, and menacing with a deadly weapon, among others.

Fuller and my weird text chain began in 2014 with information regarding the murder of one of our then-current students. It was reinstated four months after Johnny’s death when we exchanged news articles about the arrest of another then-current student who had tried meth, then proceeded to attempt to kill a police officer while under the influence.

I’m far from a news junkie, but when I see my kiddos’ faces on news channels or in my Facebook feed, I can’t help but sit enveloped in the articles and subsequent comments from the public.

“Let him burn in hell.”

“Public execution. Maybe even firing squad.”

“A disgrace.”

“A waste of space.”

These are the words that strangers have said about my students, my babies.

And every. single. time. that I’ve gotten sucked into the wormhole of comments from the public, I’ve sat, shaking as I read them through tears.

In those moments, I know I’m crying for my students, for their victims, for each of the families and the various communities involved in the incident. I cry because I don’t understand how my students have come to make the choices they’ve made. And no matter how hard I try, I know I’ll never be able to reconcile the reality of the brokenness of this world in my heart.

But just as I’ve cried tears of sadness, I’ve also screamed in rage. In those moments I’m unbelievably angry at my students for what they’ve done, for who they’ve allowed themselves to become. As time progresses, that anger subsides though, often leaving my heart puzzled.

The days go on, but at least for a little while my students’ faces stay in my news feed attached to those horrid headlines; follow-up articles are published, and with them, more horrid comments from people whom I would argue need better hobbies.

As I scroll through the articles and read the death threats and aggressive comments about the students I love, every ounce of me wants to scream back,

“You don’t know them! You don’t see their struggles! You don’t know the abuse they’ve suffered at home, the pain they carry in their hearts, or the ways they have been set up to fail in this world since they were in their mother’s wombs!” 

Let me be clear.

I have no desire to make excuses for my students or their actions, but in those moments I feel trapped between a rock and a hard place– between the seemingly reasonable expectations of human decency and the calling to love and defend the students Jesus has placed in my care.

Thus, in those moments of blinding, complex sorrow and rage, I sit, confused. Feeling a little bit helpless. Saddened by the fact that the only thing I can do is pray and schedule a visit at the county jail to see the students I love.

Because that’s just it. I love my kids. I will love my kids no matter what they do, no matter who they become. And I wish I could convince the rest of the world to do so as well.

Maybe I’m blind or naive, but those students? The ones in Fuller and my text-chain, in your Facebook feed? They’re human. They’re kids I’ve played football with at lunch. I’ve read their stories in my English classes– stories where their “fictional characters” struggle to be men and women of character in gang and drug infested worlds, in “fictional settings” that are strikingly similar to those of their author’s.

I’ve taken these students on leadership retreats to the mountains. I’ve watched them build snowmen and sled and giggle like little kids. I’ve watched them cry out of frustration when they can’t figure out their math homework and literally run screaming down the halls with excitement when they pass a test.

These young people who have made horrid choices– either one incidentally or as a string of other poor choices– these people who have taken another’s life?

They’re young men and women I honestly trust with mine.

They’re sweet and goofy; they’re so much smarter than the choices they’ve made or the stigmas the world placed on them before (or after) they ended up in the orange jumpsuits they now wear.

It’s because of this that I’ve spent several of my planning periods this year tracking some of my favorite former students through the Colorado judicial system. Last week as I waited for the Denver county inmate search website to load, a meme popped up in that text chain, and I couldn’t help but laugh at just how weird this job of mine is.

As I stared at the slowly loading page, the comments from old news articles flashed through my mind, as did this old snapchat– a picture of the student I was trying to locate–

IMG_5209

In that moment, I glanced around my empty classroom, then down at the Bible on my desk and I was reminded that loving murderers probably isn’t a common aspect of most people’s jobs; in fact, outside of DSS, it’s probably rather rare. And outside of the relationships with Jesus that our school is built upon, I doubt that it’s possible.

But isn’t that just it?

Jesus had a heart for murderers. That’s what Easter is about.

The fact that King of the Universe came down to save His people from themselves and the sin that entangles them even though we couldn’t deserve it less.

Our perfect, benevolent Jesus came to rescue His people in love and restore them to relationship with the Father, even though they shouted, “Let Him be crucified!”, “I do not know Him!”, and “Do not release Him, the innocent, but Barabbas, the robber!” just days earlier.

Jesus came to save us even though we shout those words at Him and at each other with our lips, actions, and inactions every day.

We are murderers.

Each and every one of us.

And if we refuse to acknowledge that truth in our pride or arrogance, our own virtue or religiousity, then I firmly believe that we’ll miss out on the heart of Jesus.

If we can’t look at our sin, our own capability and guilt of murder against our King– and those created in His image– then we are in danger of missing so much of the beauty of Jesus and what He has done for us, even though we are so undeserving.

May we become a people who look upon the crucifix with a more full understanding of our sin, so that we might relish in the goodness and love of the truth that followed three days later– the words that continue to shake me to my core this morning: “He is not here; Christ has risen, just as He said He would.” (Matthew 28:6)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

(Romans 5:6-8)

 

“My People” — Redemption in Poetry on Inauguration Day

My favorite poem hangs in my bedroom just above an old, olive green foot locker and to the right of my Abuelo’s guitar. Even though I’ve been known to jokingly call Mary Oliver my “spirit animal” and I’ve had a Shakespeare anthology in my purse for the last few weeks, the poem isn’t either of theirs.

It’s an unassuming poem typed on regular white printer paper; its edges are frayed from IMG_8563.JPGbeing tucked into my journal as I’ve moved and traveled around the world over the last several years. I’ve become accustomed to carrying it with me because it speaks so deeply to both my heart and my roots.

This poem was handed in as a homework assignment four years ago by the only student I’ve ever almost had to call the cops on. When she wrote it, this student was fifteen and ohhhh, she was one of the toughest girls I’d ever met. At the time, I was a young, incredibly naive teacher and my classroom antics regularly illicited looks from her that could’ve killed. For two years, we battled each other– one strong willed Latina against another. And not long after my student handed in this poem, life became unmanageable and she had to leave high school for reasons beyond her control.

But several years later, she has reenrolled at the Street School for this semester. Today, she sat across from me at the long table in my classroom, her nose buried in a book and a familiar, sly smile on her face. She’s a different woman today than when I met her five years ago, when she wrote this poem in sophomore English, or even two years ago when she and I finally called a “truce” after finding common ground in tragedy at DSS.

Today when I looked into her eyes during English, I saw the softness and a hope that only a relationship with Christ can bring, along with a renewed passion for education and a sense of maturity brought on by a few difficult years out of school.

Having her back in my classroom after watching her fight for her future these last few years has proven to me that she is my hero. She is hardworking and determined, fire-y, yet kind, emotionally strong and incredibly hopeful. She is everything that makes me proud to be Latina– the great-granddaughter of immigrants who came to America from Mexico in a cattle car, dreaming of a better life for their children, for my father, for me.

When I looked into her eyes today, I could still see the sorrow that comes with being separated from her family back in Mexico– a sense of sorrow that has been there since we met. But above that, I can see the story of redemption the Lord is writing for her, her family, and the family she will likely one day mother. Through education and grace, Jesus is bringing hope for a future different than the fearful past she has lived.

I don’t know that there has ever been a more pertinent time for her poetic words to be shared than on this Inauguration Day. These are the words of a once terrified, angry young woman– one who hid behind an incredibly hard exterior because she saw fear as weakness, and weakness an impossibility if she and her family were going to survive in America. These are the words of a young woman finding her way through unspeakable circumstances, strife, and loss, yet still choosing to fight for possibility because she knows the God who fights for her.

So on this day, whether you’re celebrating a political victory or mourning what seems like a societal loss, I pray that the Lord grants you an eternal perspective today, as well as the grace to love our sojourning brothers and sisters well. May we love and care for our fellow sojourners, since we ourselves are exactly that.

My People

“Wake up, listen to the Mexican music,

It’s not made of tunes and rhythms.

Listen closely.

It’s the person in your yard working hard, making noise,

He who woke up early to feed his kids and didn’t have time to worry about himself.

The sweat on his forehead is honor, the dirt on his hands effort,

The money in his pocket is an everyday goal and freedom is just a word.

Fallen dreamers in the middle of a desert just to chase the uncatchable dream–

“The land of the free”.

Sunburns tell stories,

Cries tell the worries of my people.

Everyday they struggle, living in fear:

Sirens,

Bosses,

Discrimination for being a different color and race.

These people think we came to take their jobs,

The jobs that always pay my people less.

Raising their children in what they would never imagined their home place,

My people saying, “I’m Latino and not Mexican,” ’cause they’re scared to represent.

The day will come when we can get along.

It might be months, years, or even decades,

But we will rise through.

Someday, they will stop labeling my people criminals just for being dreamers…”

“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”

(Hebrews 13:1-2)

How WAS my day? [A call to prayer]

“Woah… Hey… How was your day?” My friend probably could’ve spared herself the question. I’m fairly certain the glazed over, crazy lady look in my eyes was a dead give away that today was, well… a day.

I let my backpack slide off my shoulder and onto the floor as I stared vacantly at my feet, trying to find the words to articulate how my day was.

Nothing seemed right.

Saying, “Good! My toughest group of kids finally fell in love with our novel and we read forty pages in class!” seemed like a really out of sorts introduction to the sentence that would’ve followed it: “Oh, and before 9 AM, I saw a bullet hole in one of my student’s legs from where he was shot this weekend.” Or, I suppose I could’ve said, “My day was a mixed bag, but thankfully I escaped to Cork & Coffee after school to lesson plan. Things had just calmed down when I overheard an altercation down the street and then had a man run toward me shouting, ‘Did you see a guy in a black hoodie?! He just stabbed someone!’ moments before an ambulance pulled up to take the victim to the hospital. So, that was weird.”

But to simply say that my day was a mixed bag would also graze over the fact that I spent two different passing periods today comforting various girls whose 17 year old cousin/friend/ex-boyfriend had been shot and killed late last week… And each of those tender moments had a fairly significant impact on the way my day had gone, so excluding them feels weird.

So, how was my day? Chaotic? But somehow, not really. In fact, it was a fairly orderly day by DSS standards.

Good? Meh. I wouldn’t go that far.

Hard? Well, yes and no. After all, I’m far more “used to” (or rather desensitized to) gunshot wounds and stabbings than I probably should be.

As I struggled for words to explain the rough edges of my day, it hit me that I honestly don’t have room to speak negatively about the way today went either. I mean, we made great strides in English; for the first time in my teaching career my kids didn’t want to stop reading AND they even wrote a two paragraph summary without gasping and splaying themselves against my classroom wall in disbelief that I could ask them to do such a thing. (You may think I’m being dramatic. I’m not. The wall splaying really, truly happened last Tuesday.) Oh, and my college and career guest speaker this morning? He was a hit! (Granted, his first few words when he walked into my classroom this morning were, “Uh, I think I just saw a drug deal go down in the parking lot across the street…” But such is Street School life.) Then there’s the fact that my art students crushed their assignment for the day and a few even stayed after school to continue their work. So. many. good things happened today in the academic realm. Yet that doesn’t negate the pain in my heart that caused my wide-eyed stare.

Thus, I return to my friend’s question: how was my day? After a few hours of trying to find words to explain the jumble that is my short-term memory, I’m essentially still without a verdict. Maybe that’s because I don’t think there’s a word in the English language that aptly describes what life as a Street School teacher is (or isn’t) or how our days with our students go.

The only way I can put it is that being back at the Street School is “all the things”; it’s academic celebrations with tears sprinkled throughout, bookended by the agonizing realities of gang warfare and darkness that my students come from each morning and return to each afternoon. Yet somehow it’s all covered in the glorious Hope of Christ that things can be different if my students come to Him. It’s weird, but it’s beautiful in the same breath.

Unlike most things I write, this post doesn’t contain a lesson from Jesus or a nice tied together ending. At least, not yet. And although it most certainly exists within the reality of my job, I swear I don’t write this for shock value.

No, I’m writing to give you a window into the reality of my students’ lives and to ask you to partner with me this year in prayer. Theirs is a reality that exists right within the heart of Denver and every city like it. A reality that can be found mere houses or blocks away from where the majority of you are reading this in your quiet, violence-free homes on the outskirts of suburbia. That quiet? That end-of-the-day peace that you’re probably experiencing right now? That is not the reality for many of my students. But oh, how I long for that to change.

So would you join me and our mildly shell-shocked Street School staff as we enter back into our students’ lives and pray for and with them this school year?

Would you join us in praying for:

  • Opportunities to share the gospel with our students. Very few of them would consider Christ to be the Lord of their lives, and even fewer have heard of the way He loves them with His “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (The Jesus Storybook Bible). Pray that our students would be open to His Love and Truth. Pray that they would allow themselves to be swept off their feet by the sweet Savior Who has already come for them.
  • The Peace of Christ to reign in this city. Unless you’re weird like me and spend your free time reading graffiti on highway underpasses, it’s easy to miss the fact that there’s a thriving gang culture here in Denver. Due to a handful of recent events within a few local gangs, there has been a flare up of violence in our city. Pray that redemption and peace would prevail over retaliation. Pray for my students to have an iota of forethought and not get themselves involved in risky or violent situations.
  • Spiritual eyes for our staff to see what really matters. Sometimes that really, truly means English homework and sometimes that means setting aside our lesson plans and engaging in soul care instead of vocabulary lists. Pray that we, as a staff, would be loving, intentional, and wise in all of our interactions with our students.  

I’m eternally grateful for the love, prayers, and support you’ve covered me in these last few years as I’ve done life everywhere from the inner city of Denver to the very ends of the earth. As I seem to say at the beginning of every school year, I know the Lord is going to do miraculous, mind-boggling, earth shattering things this year. He has always been faithful to exceed even my biggest expectations for a school year and He has graciously called all of us to be a part of His plan.

Thank you in advance for joining in on what Jesus is doing in this beautiful city through prayer.

May the glory be to God– in the midst of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this school year.

xo,

Kace

“This is the way, Pioneer”

“Open your hands, child. Your ‘kids’ are not yours; they never were to begin with. Give them back to me. I’m the One who can, and will, take care of them.”

I’ve experienced my fair share of heartbreak over my Street School students, but leaving them to come to Alaska last fall felt like the thing that was going to rip my heart out all together.


At the end of last school year, Eli, the other English teacher, sat across from me and said the words I’d been thinking for months, but had been too afraid to verbalize.

“If I leave… and if you leave… Who is going to love these kids? They’re so hard sometimes… But I love them so much it hurts. Is it possible that someone else could love our girls the way we do? After all, they’ve become our girls… And they so desperately need to know that they’re loved.”

Those words echoed in my heart for months and shifted into fears over time. That fear gave way anxious tears that further distorted my vision. I began to see my students as far more fragile than they were and I stopped seeing Jesus as the powerful, risen Savior who came (and always comes) for God’s children in love.

I was afraid He would somehow abandon my students. Or worse, that my pre-Alaska goodbyes would become the last words I’d ever speak to them. After losing a student to gang violence last year, I was so scared that any goodbye could become permanent, and thus, I held my kids close.

So when Jesus called me to walk away from the job that had become my passion and the kids whom I saw myself as the protector of, I fought Him. Hard. But we all know how the story went… Ultimately (and albeit a bit begrudgingly) I hugged the students who held my heart and I got on a plane with their sweet, handwritten notes and gifts tucked in my pack.

God loves these kids more than I do. He won’t let anything happen to them that’s outside His will. He’s a Good, Good Father; His provision and providence puts my earthly mom-brain to shame. It will be okay. I prayed and pep talked myself all the way home on my last day of work and often over my first few months in Alaska. If I’m being honest, I still struggle to lay my DSS students at Jesus’ feet every time I see something worrisome on social media or wake up to see that I missed a call from them in the middle of the night.

At those times, the beautiful gift of my students’ continued relationship and trust, even 2,500 miles away, seems a bit like a blessing and a curse. But I cherish those random phone calls, even though my selfish heart breaks a little with each one as I wish I could offer them more than a simple prayer from the other side of a phone or computer.

Which begs the question: Why does prayer seem so insufficient to my momma-heart? Why do I believe that I could provide anything better than Jesus if I was physically present with them? I’ve wrestled with these questions as I’ve sat speechless, staring at Facebook messages and texts, wishing I could do something more than point them to Jesus in the middle of the night when their worlds are falling apart.

It was on one such night when I stumbled upon Annie Jones‘ “Oh, Pioneer: Song of the Unseen” while I texted back and forth with one of my old students. She writes,

“We are lampposts lighting the way for the lost and curious ones. Saying, ‘This is the way, Pioneer. The Good Life begins Here.’

This manna, falling from the sky as promise, is enough to satisfy our hungry lips. Mouths begging for more. Spirit breathing. There is plenty. How mystery sustains the most savage of a soul.

Come close to this, Pioneer.

Learn the language of your seeking, savage heart.

See what we are made for: breaking bread and drinking wine underneath stars with our Creator. A shared communion of enoughness. Giving thanks for our unknowing of the gentle way ahead, unfolding as we sing through momentary mystery. The Journey. There is nothing more spectacular to Belong to.”

Staring at the poem in front of me, I could hear Him, plain as day: This is what I’ve called you to. You are not your students’ protector or savior—I am. You are not the Light; you are simply a lamppost– a loving, encouraging voice along the way who can call into the darkness and say, “This way, fellow Pioneer. Come this way; it’s beautiful and Light on this path with Jesus.”

~

Nearly a year had passed since Eli and I sat starting at each other across her classroom table, wracked with the fear of the unknown for our girls. A few months had gone by since the winter night when I first read that poem. But not two days after I pulled it off the shelf to re-read it over spring break, a Facebook message between one of our former students, Eli, and I came across the screen of my phone:

“Hey guys. I decided I want to give my life to Christ but I need help. I really don’t know how to do this on my own.”

I blinked the tears out of my eyes and read the message at least five more times before letting out a weighted breath I didn’t even realize I’d been holding in for nine months.

“I told you I would take care of ‘your kids’. I love them more than you’ll ever be capable of. You can breathe and continue giving them back to Me.”

All too often my momma bear perspective skews my view of God and elevates my own power, protection, and love. But praise God for the moments when He reminds me that there is nothing that I do ever do to change or protect my students’ hearts; it’s Jesus’ love, His Spirit, His grace, and His acceptance that softens hearts, changes minds, and protects us all in the meantime.

May we as Christians, disciple-makers, teachers, parents, and momma-brained individuals learn to give the ones we love back to Jesus in prayer every day and instead call out the words of Annie Jones:

“It is this way, Beloved.

Here you will be found.

The search is over.

Hallelujah.”

~

“And I am sure of this, the He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ.”

(Philippians 1:6)

To the ends of the earth…

Y’all—

Can I just say, I had no idea what God had in store when I agreed to move to Alaska…

I knew I was coming here to teach, mentor, and disciple somewhere between 5 to 10 Native Alaskan teenagers and young adults. I knew I would live with my girls and “mom the daylights outta ‘em” just as I’ve done with about every student I’ve ever had. And after many nights of freaking out and anxiously crying to my roommates in Denver, I knew I would love them (and hoped that they would learn to love me too…).

Now, let’s go over a few of the things I didn’t know I was in for: I didn’t know I would move here, end up in ground school with one of my students, and fall in love with flying. I didn’t know I would learn to love bush life more than city life. I had no idea the depths of loneliness that come with bush life, and conversely, the depth of relationship with God that occurs when you have nothing to distract your heart and mind. I didn’t know I would learn to butcher moose, end up volunteering in the local K-12 school, or that the Lord would transform my ministry from working exclusively with my Native TLC students to becoming a co-leader for both the Lake Clark Bible Church (LCBC) Cambodia teen mission team and the Outfitters for Christ (OFC) Thailand missions team. (Try saying that 5 times fast…Woof.)

But here I am—being called into what seems like the wildest season of God’s plan for my life yet… (Funny how He somehow one-upped Himself after moving me to a village.)

SelinaCambodia
One of my darling LCBC teens; they’re all so pumped about what God is doing!

On June 8th, I plan to board a plane with 13 LCBC high schoolers and we’ll be off for a whirlwind two weeks of teaching and sharing the Gospel in the predominately Buddhist, post-Khmer Rouge terrorized country of Cambodia. Our mission while in Cambodia will be to support local missionaries who have established churches, Christian schools, and orphanages in the last twenty years to bring the hope of Jesus to Cambodia. Our team will specifically be sharing the gospel while teaching English to school-age children and teenagers in both Christian and public schools. (For many, knowing English can be a skill that will later transform their lives, as English is rapidly becoming the trade language of most of Southeast Asia.)

On June 22nd, I’ll bid my LCBC teens farewell and board a plane to Thailand where I’ll meet up with a team of fellow Coloradoans—a beautiful mixture of Denver Street School alumni and Outfitters for Christ interns that I’ve had the honor to work with and disciple over the last few summers. Similar to what I’ll be doing in Cambodia, our DSS/OFC team will be teaching English in local orphanages, leading short vacation Bible schools for kiddos in smaller towns, and just generally serving the long-term “boots on the ground” missionaries that we are partnering with in whatever ways they need most.

My personal heart within the two larger missions for the month is simply to love on the people God places in front of me—fellow weary missionaries, house-moms, students, and orphans alike. After having served in a live-in ministry and discipleship setting for the last year here at TLC, I understand the need for a listening ear, a warm cup of tea, and a hug on a new level– and that is what I hope to provide for those in need of such a personal touch of Jesus’ love.

In addition to listening and loving, I’m excited to see how the Lord will transform the lives of the young people I’ve fallen in love with over the last several years—both here in Alaska and back in Colorado— as He pushes them to new depths of relationship with Himself, outside of their comfort zones and familiar settings.

I’ve been so richly blessed by your prayers and support as I’ve lived out Jesus’ calling on my life this year in Alaska. If I’m being honest, I’ve felt so overwhelmed by your generosity that I couldn’t imagine asking more of you, my wonderful community. But as I step out in faith, deeply knowing that the Lord is calling me to Southeast Asia for the month of June, I’m asking you to consider partnering with me, yet again, in this amazing opportunity to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. I need to raise a mere $800 per trip ($1,600 total) to cover my in- (and inter-) country costs for the month of June.

Would you please consider partnering with Jesus and I as we raise up and disciple future leaders of the church here in Alaska, back in Colorado, and across Southeast Asia?

As always, thank you for your partnership in spreading the Good News of our Sweet Jesus.

Your grateful sister,

Kacy Lou

If you’re interested in partnering with me as I head to Cambodia with some of my favorite Alaskan teens, donations can be made through Lake Clark Bible Church’s website and simply earmarked Cambodia – Leyba.

Or…

If you’re interested in partnering with me as I head to Thailand with my DSS alumni and OFC interns, donations can be made on the Outfitters for Christ website and earmarked Thailand – Leyba.

[If you have any questions about my work here in Alaska, or about either of these upcoming trips, I would love to talk to you! My e-mail is KacyLouLeyba@gmail.com; I’m generally fairly quick in response. (Unless our internet is out because of weather or other weird village flukes.)]

*All donations made through either website and earmarked appropriately will go directly to the support of our missions trips and will be receipted as tax-deductible for the 2016 tax year.

Current prayer requests as I head into this wild season with Jesus:

Please join me as I pray…

  • That both the LCBC teen missions team and our OFC team will be so enthralled with who Jesus is and what He has done for us that it overflows in the team unity and strength that can only be found in Him.
  • For a heart for God’s people, regardless of nationality, race, age, or geographic location, to be developed within my students.
  • That we will be able to create effective English lessons for kiddos ages 3 to 18 with love and energy.
  • That our teams will have strength and endurance through hot weather and long days of teaching (and within the hours of Alaskan/Cambodia Coloradoan/Thai teen bonding time in the evenings).
  • For all of the details (passports, visas, inter-state communication as the OFC team and I plan/train together long-distance) to come together, as I know only Jesus could do.

How do you decorate gang warfare for Christmas?

Last Christmas was a mess— a really dark, emotional mess.

On the morning of December 10th I made great plans to sweep the brokenness and messiness of holiday life under a rug, slap a tree on top of it all, and have a Merry-freaking-Christmas. My students and I were going to be happy and we were going to enjoy Christmas, dang it! (Can you see the crazy, plastered smile on my face? No? Just ask one of my DSS girls… I’m sure they can imitate it pretty well given how many times they’ve seen my crazy-teacher-eyes around the holidays over the years.)

The very same day that I made this proclamation of well intentioned, forced joy, my Christmas dreams were crushed by the murder of one of my students.

Losing Johnny broke me, and I subsequently kinda gave up on Christmas for a while last year. I battled between depression, and the urge to fight my feelings and simply “fix” said depression. I so badly wanted Christmas cookies and cheerful music to fix everything like it always seemed to in those stupid ABC Family Christmas movies. So, I tried to force a few cheerful traditions as an attempt to pull myself out of the darkness and pain. But the truth was, while they distracted me temporarily, none of those things could fix my aching heart or the hearts of the students around me. If anything, my inability to fix the situation just shoved me further into an emotional meltdown.

I'm not even kidding you; Christmas was so broken last year that even my Christmas cookies came out in pieces.
I’m not even kidding you; Christmas was so broken last year that even my Christmas cookies came out looking like a mess.

A year later, life looks drastically different in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (Can I get a hallelujah?!)

But even now, twelve months and twenty-five hundred miles removed from the events of last Christmas season, my heart still hurts. It hurts because I still don’t know how to appropriately grieve the death of an eighteen year old who was trying to turn his life around. (And I feel stupid– like after a year of wrestling with the consequences and darkness of gang warfare, I should have this figured out…)

My heart hurts because even in the middle of nowhere, I’ve got a lot of really real crap going on in my heart, and I know you probably do too.

It’s the holidays, and therefore I’m dealing with my annual child-of-divorce, “I’m-going-to-have-to-pick-which-side-of-the-family-to-disappoint-on-Christmas” struggle. I’m wrestling with a deep, selfish desire to avoid the conflict and pain I know I’ll be confronted with upon my return to Denver. I’m struggling to reconcile the fact that when I leave this village and return to the safe arms of my loved ones in three weeks, I’ll be sending my TLC students back to unsafe spaces to fend off the darkness on their own for a month.

I know I’m not alone in the mess. There are real things that we’re all struggling with, and newsflash: the struggles (at least my struggles) don’t ever seem to care whether it’s Christmas time or the middle of July.

Within these weird struggles of life I’m left with a lot of questions. Questions like:

If the pain of losing Johnny isn’t going to go away, even a year later, how do I decorate gang warfare for Christmas? How do I hide the pain that it has brought to my Street School family, or the unrelated pain that I’m feeling in my heart because of family struggles and relational breakdown? Should I even try to hide it at all?

Should I try to smother my heartbreak by wrapping it in Christmas lights and pretending that it doesn’t exist? That seems to be close to how the world tells me I should handle this internal battle, yet that “solution” doesn’t sit right in my soul…

But I think this is what we, as Christians, feel like we have to do.

Within the church we feel this need to be perfect, especially around the holidays. But I, for one, can’t be perfect; I’m completely incapable of it. And I’m sick of feeling like there’s something wrong with me for wanting to be real.

Yet even within my craving for authenticity, I still hesitate to bring up the places I’m struggling. After all, I don’t want to be the one to ruin someone else’s perceived holiday perfection with my mess. None of us want to be the broken, hurting ones in the midst of a season that seems to be the antithesis of such behavior.

There isn’t space for real life or real pain in the way our culture does Christmas. I think that’s such a shame because I’m pretty sure God doesn’t have His calendar divided into “times that are appropriate to discuss hard things” and “times that are to be devoted only to the drinking of hot chocolate, wearing trendy/ugly sweaters, and listening to Michael Buble’s Christmas album in the car”.

No. In His calendar, there is a time of longing for, and a time of receiving Jesus through His birth.

And friends, this season—advent—is that season of longing.

We all have really deep longings that match our questions and pain, and advent should be a season, just like any other, where we can express those within the safety of the church without someone trying to sweep us under the rug and shove a shiny Christmas tree on top of us and our problems.

Advent is a season devoted to waiting and wrestling, longing and hoping. It was not created to be a season devoted to aesthetic perfection.

This world isn’t perfect; I don’t think you need a church calendar to tell you that. But I think that it’s okay to let advent be a season of recognizing just how broken this world is. It’s okay to talk about the imperfections in our lives, because through acknowledging them, we can more deeply acknowledge our need for Christ and His coming–for the renewal that only He could bring to our brokenness, both through His birth in that manger two thousand years ago and in His someday second coming.

This advent and Christmas season, I pray that the church will be a people who make space for the brokenness (and broken people) in our lives, knowing that Christ has done the same for humanity. May we be a people who speak truth and light into the dark, complicated places of our lives, together. And as we wrestle with our brokenness and as creation groans, may we see Hope within poor circumstance, rather than try to forget that brokenness exists.

May we look to the soon-coming Christ, the reason for our confidence and Hope for redemption, deeply knowing that because of what He has done for us in His birth, death, and resurrection, that our sufferings will be lifted one day, for He is making all things new.

May we be a people that sees the Light in the darkness, acknowledging both, but embracing the truth that Jesus came to be the light that could never be extinguished.
As I light the advent candles in my home, know that I will always light them for you too, Johnny, just like we did in La Alma Park last December at your candlelight vigil. You are not forgotten. You never could be; you simply shined too brightly with that goofy smile of yours. Thank you for teaching so many of us what Light can look like in abject darkness.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great Light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has Light shone.”

(Isaiah 9:2)

Water into wine

“Miss!” He shouted as he threw open my classroom door and stuck half of his body in my room. I glanced up from my laptop and met the eyes of Sanchez*, one of my MANY beloved fourteen year old freshmen.

“Miss!!!” He yelled again, as if I hadn’t heard him the first time, when he nearly knocked my classroom door through the wall. “I’m gonna beat his a**!”

Laughing to myself, I glanced from Sanchez to one of my junior girls who was drawing in the rocking chair across from mine. She shook her head quietly as the same smirk I was wearing started to draw across her face.

Returning to the e-mail I had been writing, I mindlessly drawled, “That’s not very nice Sanchez… What would Jesus do?”

I glanced up to see him frowning in my direction, giving me his best Shut it, lady glare.

Just then a quiet giggle came from the rocking chair and Emily perked up. “Jesus would turn him into wine.”

I laughed so hard at the flippancy of her statement that I nearly dropped the computer that had been balancing on my knees. My kids are nothing if not absolutely hilarious.

~

About a month ago, I was laying in bed, talking on the phone with a friend. It was just a few days after Johnny had been murdered and I was really struggling to see the Light in our little school community and within my own heart.

“I know you can’t see it now,” she said. “But from the outside it’s really obvious that God’s doing a great work at DSS. Every time I pray for you guys I just keep thinking about when Jesus turned the water into wine in John 2. No one really knew about the miracle except for the servant and he didn’t even see it right away… and I think that’s kinda what you guys are doing. He’s turning water into wine at DSS and you get to see it first. That’s pretty cool…”

As I laid there listening to her, all I could think was Yupp. We’ve got plenty of water. Unfiltered, dirty, rough water… I mean freshmen… I mean water…

(Allow me to clarify: One of the reasons that this year has been so difficult is because our student body is SO young. In the last two years we’ve graduated 27 seniors– a record and miracle in itself! But when a school is only made up of roughly 40 kids at a time, losing that many leaders and replacing them with rambunctious, rough 14 year olds, well… it makes things a bit more interesting.

Sometimes this year it has felt like we’re all out of our “precious aged wine” and all we’ve got around here is water– freshmen that is. In fact, most days it feels like we’re drowning in the chaos of the freshmen…)

As my friend began to change subjects, I made a mental note of her observation, but honestly didn’t think much more of it. I had far too much to think about in those first few weeks anyway.

Or maybe I didn’t…

Maybe the only thing that I thought about for a while was why…

Why was Johnny gone? Why did God let this happen? Why did he randomly march into the principal’s office in October, sit down, and say, “I know I’m 18 with freshman credits. I know I’m not the best student. I know this is gonna be hard, but I want you all to teach me. I’m ready to learn.” Why on earth would He bring Johnny, a kid who had been at DSS three years earlier, back to the school only to have him there for less than a quarter before being murdered?!

My questions were repetitive. They swirled through my brain while I was awake and inundated my dreams when I fell asleep.

And I wasn’t the only one.

The Monday after we lost Johnny, the computer teacher and I sat down after school and processed what we knew about the investigation and what we had seen the week before.

I rambled through all of my “why” questions once more and she quietly hung her head and said,

Ya know, I’m not really one’a those ‘audible voice of God’ kinda people. When I pray, I usually don’t get answers right away. But this weekend, I was praying, asking the Lord all of those questions you just listed off…and I got an answer.

I was sitting there, asking God why, why, why?! and out of no where, He just said, ‘Because I want to be in the middle of this.’  And it dawned on me that He is.

More people than I can count have been praying for their family, our staff, and our students. People I don’t even know have told me they’re praying for peace in this city. I think He brought Johnny back here, not to stop this from happening, but so the aftermath would be covered in prayer and love… He’s gonna be glorified through whatever comes out of this.

I sat there, staring at my fidgety hands and breathed a sigh of relief. Even if it wasn’t what I necessarily wanted to hear, God had a plan, even in the darkest of situations.

~

As I sat in my rocking chair last Thursday, giggling and trying to collect my composure and the papers that I had dropped when Emily made me erupt into laughter, Sanchez remained in my door, clearly not nearly as amused as I was.

“But for real, Miss. Come here.” He demanded, motioning me to the doorway.

After collecting my mess, I grabbed my keys and followed him out the door.

“What’s up, dude?”

“Miss, I don’t want to end up like Johnny.” He said seriously as he stared straight at me.

My heart twitched and I swallowed back the emotional feeling that was starting to rise in the back of my throat. Unsure of what to say, I stammered out a simple, “Uh okay…” and kept my eyes locked on his.

“Miss, I’m not gonna tell you whose a** I want to kick, but I do want to give you this so I don’t do anything stupid.”

As he said that, he took off his hat, pulled a blade out from under the bill, and held it out for me to take.

“I found this and was gonna use it. But then I thought about Johnny and realized that I don’t want that to be me… I don’t want that to be the other guy either.”

With that, he turned on his heels and walked down the hall to lunch, leaving me stunned, standing in the hallway with a blade in my hand.

Water into wine, folks…

God is doing miracles within our walls everyday.

He is in the middle of our turbulent, freshmen infested water, turning it into wine. Sloooooowwwwwwly but surely. And He is being glorified by what may seem like the tiniest of miracles and positive decisions.

 

*Student’s name has been changed to protect their identity