Newly married and after serving in 2 different churches through our 4 years in college, Nicki and I decided two things: 1) We didn’t want to live in Chicago long-term and 2) We couldn’t afford to live in Chicago long-term. So I sought after full-time work in student ministry and Nicki drew a 5-6 hour circle around Cincinnati and said that was my searching radius so that we could still be within a reasonable drive to home. As I searched through the binders of jobs at Trinity, I came upon a job description for a Faith Reformed Church outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan that really intrigued me. I had a couple interviews that went reasonable well and then when they narrowed it down to 3 people, they brought us all in on the same Sunday to interivew with 3 different committees at the same time on a rotating basis. I remember this being really awkward for Nicki and I to be sitting with these 2 other couples we were competing for the same job for. Apparently the head of the search committee was much more enamored with another canidate because when he called me to offer the job, he kind of stammered and eventually said, “I guess we want to offer you the job”. My response was, “this is a good thing, right?”. So our first adventure as a newlyweds and college graduates was to move to southwest Michigan and see if we could make a difference with the teenagers who were in the church ane eventually into the community.
Not sure how or when it started, but we called the high school youth group “SHINE” and my pet-name for them was the “user friendly youth group”. We fell in love with these kids and I think they did the same with us. We just clicked really well and worked hard at not having the usual barriers of cool/uncool, jocks, musicians, academics, gamers, etc. etc. We wanted a flat community where everybody belonged, all had equal value and got full share of the community resources of love and care. We had a blast with these kids at camps, retreats, sledding hills, ballgames, service projects, conferences, concerts etc. etc. We began to pick up momentum and the youth group really grew in number and in depth of relationships. I vividly remember our mission trip to Toronto to learn about the real issues of homelessness and street kids involved in prostitution. We served them for a week and listened to their broken stories. An experience I’ll never forget. More than that, I felt so honored to lead this group of aspiring young leaders. Honestly, some of the coolest kids (now adults with kids) I have ever had the privelege of working with, I absolutely loved them and still do.
3 signficant ‘aha’ moments as well happened to/for me in this time in Michigan:
On November 9, 1996, Nicki gave birth to our firstborn, Alison. One of our dearest friends and fellow youth-leader, Stacie Weesies was our nurse in the delivery room and it was so reassuring for Nicki and I to have such a trusted friend in the room with us and throughout the experience. When they put Ali on Nicki’s chest she was turned away from us but pronounced her a girl. They took her over to the bin to clearn her up and measure her length and weight. I couldn’t quite see her as another nurse was in the way, and then she moved and I made eye contact with Ali for the first time, I fell immediately in love. Nicki asked me what she looked like, I said “she’s perfect”. Never will I forget that first glance.
In our 3rd year at Faith Church, I was informed that money was really tight within the church budget and that there would be a spending freeze on ministry budgets for the year. With a youth group that was exploding, I now had no budget to carry on. So two things happened. We moved our meetings to our spacious, old, ranch home instead of at the church or other places. Immediately I noticed the vibe changed and the students felt even more comfortable sharing and bringing their friends. It was as if it removed some barriers to authenticity by being in our home. Nicki and I look at this time as the seeds being planted in our minds and hearts about hosting church out of our home and offering hospitality for all who wanted to belong.
Somehow in this time, I had several kids who were either involved in demonic oppression or satanic occultic practices and I found a ministry to them. As a kid myself in my young 20’s, I was counseling extremely dark and broken teens and performing exorcisms against powers I had very little experience with but their manifestations were enough to scare me into a closet. However, that Philly kid in me wasn’t afraid of a fight and I saw the demonic realm as a bully that had no right to any heart/soul that was in the image of the God of all Creation. I did share what I was coming across to the elders who were 3 times my age and they looked at me with blank stares, I was hoping for help and advice, at that point I knew I was on my own and had to resort to books and trial and error. (oh yeah, and that Bible was really helpful) I have often said that ministry is a lot like picking up rocks, if you pick up enough of them, you are going to find snakes. I learned that the reason the majority of my panic attacks in the night at 1:00 a.m. were because that was when the occultic services in Kalamazoo were concluded and they would send out the demonic forces to work their evil and intimidation. Because a couple of the teens I was working with were directly involved in the local satanic occult, I would at times get cryptic notes placed under my windshield about town and sometimes strange messages left on our voicemail when I was out of town to scare Nicki I guess, I definitely felt like I was being watched. But being watched meant I was a threat to their plans so in the words of Doc Holliday in Tombstone, “I’m your huckleberry.” I learned that ministry was not about dodgeball and funny stories to keep kids attention, rather ministry was a declaration of war for the hearts and souls of all of God’s Creation. If you want in, you better be all in or you will get eaten up.
I loved our time in Michigan, it was some of our best days. SHINE will forever be the coolest youth group in our hearts and minds. You know who you are. 😉