Helping youth find joy in the city

Photo by Pavel Nekoranec

It’s a warm evening downtown. Volunteers set up tables of cake, juice, science-themed party favors, and seeds for children to plant in the rooftop garden. Kids gather with their families, dancing to music. Laughter fills the air.

This could be a scene in any number of communities. However, this particular party takes place on the roof of the Union Rescue Mission in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles—an area where thousands of men, women, and children experience homelessness.

My friend “Sista” Mary, the founder of a ministry called “Worthy of Love,” has been throwing themed birthday parties for children and young people experiencing homelessness in downtown Los Angeles monthly for five years. When she started, there was an average of 15-20 kids staying at the shelter. Today there are regularly over 100 children and youth. Many of these kids will never have a birthday party thrown for them. Worthy of Love seeks to bring hope, laughter, and joy to children and to remind them they are all worthy of love by hosting monthly birthday parties.

It’s a labor of love, and also distinctly a labor of joy.

Young people and joy

Children and youth have an ability to experience joy in the here and now; an abandonment of their present reality in order to enter an altered one temporarily. They don’t deny the reality of the pain and fear they live with, but they also know how to embrace joy.

Young people will witness and experience pain, suffering, challenges, and injustices in their lives. How can we help them to discover God’s joy for them in the midst of these circumstances?

The Gospel at its core is a revelation of the joy of Christ. Further, joy is deeply rooted in the essence of God. Led by Yale Center for Faith and Culture’s Miroslav Volf, The Theology of Joy and the Good Life project identifies three key components of joy:

  • Agential (what you do),
  • Circumstantial (how the world is for you, both materially and culturally) and
  • Affective (how you feel).

God intends for us to experience joy in what we do, how we see the world, and how we feel. Joy integrates all three. The good life God offers us for our flourishing is marked by joy.[1]

Joy reflects our sense of wellbeing but also of delight. God takes delight in us and invites us to find joy in communion with God and others.

This all sounds good when circumstances are at their best, but how can this kind of joy speak into the suffering that young people face?

Suffering and joy

I have served as a local law enforcement chaplain for almost twenty years in Los Angeles. As a chaplain I have delivered death notifications, responded to crisis situations, assisted in domestic disputes, and walked with people as they recovered from losing loved ones to homicide, suicide, and traffic accidents.

While riding with officers during their shifts and responding to calls, I regularly encountered young people from my church and community. I saw firsthand the challenges and pain in their lives, whether from domestic violence, abandonment, or depression.

My first “call out” on my first day as a chaplain was to deliver a death notification to a family whose 18-year-old son committed suicide. On other calls, I stood in emergency rooms with parents lamenting the death of their baby. I have seen grief and tragedy up close and personal as I have journeyed with people experiencing deep pain and trauma. For my own sense of wellbeing and sustainability in this role, I needed to find places of hope and joy to balance the pain and do more than help people with pain management.

Some of those sources of joy have come as surprises. I have witnessed suicidal individuals talked off ledges, have seen children rescued from abusive homes, and have heard victims’ stories of survival and triumph. In these places I see glimpses of hope and even joy. Life is not merely determined or defined by suffering, but also by triumph, overcoming, and celebration.

Can joy and suffering coexist, or is suffering always a killjoy? Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, wrote about his own experiences of suffering in a concentration camp. Frankl found that even in the most horrible and painful of circumstances, life can have meaning.[2] One can even find joy in the midst of unspeakable suffering, providing strength in the pain. Finding and experiencing joy doesn’t discredit the depth of pain caused by suffering or make it okay. This is one of the mysteries of life.

Today’s young people may face many expressions of trauma, including isolation and loneliness. The city with its unique challenges can at times be isolating. But in the intersection of our lives there are opportunities to accompany each other through the hard places. When a community bears each other’s burdens, this can lead to hope and shared joy for adults and young people.

Where joy grows

We are made for relationship with God and each other. Joy can be experienced and exchanged in Jesus’ presence with us, and as we recognize our need for each other. Jesuit priest Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries (the largest gang rehabilitation organization in the world), has discovered the power of connectedness and mutuality for himself and for those coming out of prison and gang life.

Boyle writes that in relationship, we discover not only shared pain and struggles, but also shared joy that flows between us.

“For me, however, it’s all about delighting. I enjoy [gang members’] company, for it is light and affectionate, and charming and good for the soul. To be with them ignites the contagion of God’s own tenderness ... Besides, it’s not for nothing that Pope Francis speaks of the “Joy of the Gospel.” Once the following of Jesus becomes a strain and a dour, odious task, a “dangerous” job, it’s lost its way. Once discipleship morphs into the deadline serious and unsmilingly grim, would it not be safe to say that we’ve wandered far from the gospel’s delighting heart?”[3] 

Father Greg reminds us that our faith is undergirded by joy. Life is not solely defined by the hard places, difficulties, and losses that we face on our own. God is with us and has given us each other.

“We keep moving, walking forward on the Good Journey, finding moments of joy along the way until those moments join together and usher in a life of happiness. So what we focus on and hope for, in the meantime, is a commitment to abide fully in our complete humanity. We bring as much compassion and wakefulness to our own lived experience and know that nothing human is ever abhorrent to God.”[4]

We find more joy in the context of relationship. 

In the New Testament, Jesus introduces spiritual adoption to his dear friend John (who is about to lose a friend) and to his mother (who is about to lose a son). In preparing them for the void his death will cause in their lives, he leads them into a spiritual adoptive relationship. On the cross, Jesus explains this concept in John 19:25-27: “...When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” The language that Jesus uses in this text is also legal adoptive language. Jesus urges them to adopt each other, caring for one another’s needs.[5] Mary and John both grieved the death of Jesus but they also shared joy in new community and family found in each other. Like grief, joy is not intended to be experienced alone. When shared, it grows.

Joy building

How do we become purveyors of joy in our youth groups, recognizing joy building as a spiritual practice?

Joy moves us towards engagement with God and others. Joy is a “glad to be together” state whether in times of pain or celebration. Joy reminds us that we are not alone. Scripture calls us to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” How can we practice, build, and seek joy with our young people?

In the article “Joy Changes Everything,” neurotheologian Jim Wilder offers, “... from a brain perspective, joy stimulates the growth of the brain systems involved in character formation, identity consolidation and moral behavior … transformation is about forming a new attachment with God built on love, joy, and shalom.” The ability to experience joy is marked by relationship. And so, “The brain is more deeply changed by whom it loves (who brings me joy) than by what it thinks.”[6] 

I remember when I was serving as a youth pastor and one of my youth died unexpectedly. It was unspeakably painful. Yet one day as we were processing this great loss, some of the funny stories about this student began to be shared. We found ourselves laughing until it hurt. We agreed that this is what he would have wanted; remembering him with joy and the joy he brought to our lives.

When we grieve, it can seem inappropriate to find joy. But these emotions are often held in tension rather than in isolation from each other. Giving permission for laughter in situations like this is a way to build joy.

In Jeremiah 29, God calls the people who are living in exile to keep living in the land of their enemies and, remarkably, to seek the peace of a city not their own. The text explains that our peace, wellbeing, and abundant life are intertwined with each other communally. Shalom is a comprehensive concept that expresses a sense of wholeness, harmony, joy, and justice in society.[7] In other words, joy is central to the flourishing God intends for us. The people of God in Jeremiah learn to sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land, practice faith by blessing enemies, and serve the welfare of the city.[8]

Can we imagine this kind of wholeness, abundance, and joy for our young people? Joy can strengthen them as they face challenges and move them closer to the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

How can we start?

  • Study God’s joy for us (e.g., Zephaniah 3:17), how joy is described in Scripture, and what creates/brings about joy. (see Psalm 28:7, Galatians 5:22)
     
  • Model joy. Jesus moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message) and walked the earth, embodying the love of the Father. As we experience challenges in our lives, we have the opportunity to model this joy and love.
     
  • Encourage intergenerational relationships. Young people and seniors can share stories of what brings them joy and when they have experienced joy in their lives in the past.
     
  • Create traditions and spaces for shared joy. Intentional spaces (in addition to regular youth group gatherings) for young people to interact, care for, and enjoy one another, creating shared joyful moments.
     
  • Spend time in an urban context. Conduct an ethnographic exercise studying the joyful interactions of people in the city (e.g., food court or market, train/metro station and/or another city gathering place). Look for and identify places, monuments, art, and symbols of joy in the city. 

This article is adapted from a chapter coauthored with Jude Tiersma Watson entitled “Joy Flows Through the City” for an upcoming book on the missiology of joy authored by Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies faculty and scholars.

 

[1] Miroslav Volf, Yale Centre for Faith and Culture. “The Theology of Joy and the Good Life” project conducts research and facilitates interdisciplinary conferences and other gatherings to build a transformative movement driven by a Christian articulation of the joy that attends the flourishing human life.

[2] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, orig. 1946).

[3] Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The power of radical kinship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017),  9.

[4] Ibid, p. 115.

[5] See Mary Glenn, “Family in the City” https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/family-in-the-city

[6] Jim Wilder, “Joy Changes Everything,” Conversations Journal, Issue 12.2, 45-51.

[7] Robert Linthicum, Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[8] Mark Gornick, To Live In Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).