Monday, March 31, 2008

Hope Girls

The other day I sat down for a cup of coffee with a group of teenage girls. They were all laughing, some frowning at the vanilla latte they ordered for the first time, all were enthusiastic on a Saturday. I watched these young middle school girls interact in an environment new to them - the local coffee shop. They immediately settled in to joint tables and absorbed the culture of conversation and people.

My heart sang a song last Saturday with these girls. My Navy son told me he would rather face some pretty tough guys than a room full of teenager girls. I talked with him about my upcoming volunteer work and what he thought of me giving my heart away. In the email he sent me about the hormones and attitudes of girls, I wondered at that moment if I should turn tail and run.

I have three sons, all having travelled through the murky waters of being a black male teen in America. I understood what they needed. I knew how to love them and guide them.

My fellas also knew that I understood their pressures. They knew I was safe. They also knew I would love their friends. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, had buddies that knew dinner at the house was at 6:30pm. Meals stretched for this large family and an extra chair was always waiting. The guys understood that I understood that sometimes they just wanted to relax and get away from the pressure, my home was such a place.

They understood the rules of the house - no cursing, no hats, no sagging, no N words, no girls, and no misogyny. "Yes ma'am," they all replied. I would greet each new friend with the rundown - who was he, who were his people, what grade was he in, what kind of grades did he get, etc. My sons would just stand at the door alternately shaking their heads in mock embarrassment and smiling at my comfort level with their crew. It is the same now, the young men of Hope Unlimited are getting to know me, yet I feel a sense of connection that they know I get it. So I'm beginning a journey with the girls.

So when I think about this new relationship building with the teen girls, I stop and wonder if I chose them or they chose me. Perhaps this is the part of the marathon I've been running at a slow and steady pace. A friend of mine reminded me once of God's call on my life to minister to women. My vision of that became structured along church lines and more traditional roles until God had to show me something different. Ministry, true disciplining, happens outside the four walls. It is in that understanding that the Hope Girls have captured a permanent place of my heart.

My own girls have taught me some things about the turbulent and swirling ocean of girlhood in the 21st century. At ages 4 and 6, respectively, my girls have contrasting personalities and definite opinions. My elder daughter, the butterfly princess who is into clothes and computers, is also the one who can make the hair on my neck stand on edge. She can let out a glass-shattering scream that makes my heart skip a few beats. I close my eyes and wonder if she and I will survive the inevitable event in a few years when menopause and puberty barrel through our lives.

The thought of hanging out with a bunch of girls has had to develop in me over a lifetime. I'm almost 44 and had to form a love for women. As a teenager and as the step-daughter/step-sister in a strange household, I didn't hold much love for the female species. As I grew to a young woman in college, there was a tug in me to join a sorority to reach "sisterhood" until I saw the sorors fighting. I grew up with catty women and didn't want to pay my hard earned money to join a group. Sometimes I regret that decision and wonder if I prejudged them. At other times, I think I made the right decision because I had to become a full woman myself before I could accept God's beauty in the creatures He formed. Beyond the comparisons of hair, makeup, jewelry, clothes, and men, there resides in the heart of women a desire to connect and belong to another sister. It is this that keeps me in my moms group and what throws the covers back on a Saturday morning.

I heard once that is you educate women, you educate the world. I know that if women are empowered and begin to see themselves as advocates and not pawns in a male-dominated society, mountains will move over and take notice. It is this belief that fuels the fire in my heart to mentor the young ladies to become more than what their circumstances, community, media, or video says they should be.

My waking hours over the past month has taken detours as I see the faces of the girls at tutoring. I sit in anticipation on Saturday mornings, waiting for the first tentative hand on the door to enter a world they don't know. My mind and heart say silent and audible prayers - God please let me connect with them. I see their faces and wonder if I have enough to give.

So on our first outing, I took them to my favorite place - the coffee shop. After we had our drinks and were settled down on a mildly cold early afternoon, I stopped and took notice. They didn't see me watching them, as if I was watching poetry in motion. I stood to the side and looked around the table at the beautiful black women they would become. It was at that moment, after spending the morning in a Bible study session and cramming them into my van, that I realized, one person can make a difference.

All kids want to be loved and it is a wonderful gift to be a trusted adult they can turn to. The times we live in now are turbulent with race and economic issues played over and over in the media, both locally and nationally. The young people are under much more stress than my youth at East Elementary School and Simenson Jr. High School in Jefferson City MO. Our life issues in 1976 were much different. So I watched them discuss relevant events concerning our Kirkwood community and perceptions of black youth. They spoke with such maturity and wisdom that belied their 10-15 years.

I smiled, a little moment, over a cup of coffee, and a connection happened. I will have to tell my son that I survived my first real session with a group of teen girls and it wasn't like boot camp! I will have to tell him that my heart is full and I want to be a blessing to him. I want him to know that we talked and chatted for what seemed like hours, all of us reluctant to make the trip back to their homes.

For a few moments, on a Saturday, hope rang through the voices of teen girls. I have to audacity to believe they can do anything. I can't wait to see how the story of their lives unfolds. My latte mug is ready, the coffee is brewing, and Saturday is only five days away.

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