"There's no way you'll be able to handle the youth. They're from the streets," she said.
Now, I wasn't completely naive to the realities of urban living. I knew the youth and I would have very little in common. I definitely grew up in South Carolina's suburbia with kids calling me OREO because of my voice, my interests and my neighborhood. And The Wire wasn't even on television back then, so she was right that I had no real frame of reference for life on the streets. But these are church youth, I thought. How bad can it be?
But she refused to budge, so I reached into my Old MacDonald bag-o-tricks and tried to remember every delightful e-i-e-i-oh from my childhood. I put on my happy face and read through the lesson plans to prepare for the cute little tots. We were going to be talking about forgiveness, using the story of the prodigal son returning home.
The kids were sweet. We had games and music and plenty of Hi-C and animal crackers, so they were happy. I started a little rhythmic call-and-response with them after learning the lesson:
"When your brother or sister hits you, what do you do?"
"Forgive!" we all shouted together.
"When another kid calls you a name, what do you do?"
"When someone takes something from you, what do you do?"
That's when a sweet little girl jumped up-and-down raising her hand.
"And what about when someone drives by your house shooting at your window?" she asked.
I sat there staring at this sweet child in pink with barrettes dangling from her braided head. This sweet child whose only knowledge of anything driving by should be the delightful melody of "Pop Goes the Weasel" announcing that a van filled with ice cream is just around the corner. This sweet child who was waiting for my cue so that we could all shout out "forgive" together.
And I was silent. All of a sudden the easy answer wrapped up so politely in this VBS lesson plan seemed so hard to say.
As a group, we all talked a bit more about the drive-by shootings. The kids shared how they would drop to the floor, wait for their parents to crawl towards them and all huddle together. They had their drive-by plan down to a stop, drop and roll kind of science. In just four years.
Bishop Desmond Tutu says there is “no future without forgiveness.” It is truth. But just like so many other truths, it's easier to say than it is to embody. It's easier to shout in a sing-song way with 4-year-olds than it is to toss back at gang-bangers as bullets fly through your window.
It must be practiced. Daily. Practiced until it is our way of living. Practiced until it's natural. Practiced in the face of great difficulty until it's easier.
I asked one girl for her prayer request, and she asked me to pray that she might forgive the LRA soldier who raped her.
I go on to write in the book:
I don’t want to paint a pretty picture of forgiveness—especially in a war-torn place. I think even the simple declarations of forgiveness and prayers for forgiveness that we heard in Gulu were steps on a very long road. This road will probably be filled with a lot of painful debris—memories that will embitter and frustrate once again. There are likely many hardships and unexpected bumps that may make the course of forgiveness seem frightening at times. This process may take longer than any of the forgivers imagined when they first chose forgiveness.
In the end, though, it’s the most beautiful road if you choose to take it. And the first sign of beauty begins in the choosing.
May we choose to practice forgiveness. Not the easy, polite church school answer kind of forgiveness, either. May we choose the messy hard road of forgiveness and release.