A train is slowly meandering through town; its presence is umissable between the blast of its whistle and the screeching of steel wheels on wet tracks. I’m insulated from the screech of the train and the little drizzle by the unmistakable red walls of Hot Cup. The shop sits awkwardly on a rounded corner of an awkward intersection; each car that passes looks like it could careen into the front of the store at each turn. As I’m watching the cars go by, I’m sipping coffee, listening to the Beatles, and idly enjoying the moment.
In short, there are few places I would rather be.
But as I look down the street, the buildings tell a different story. Brick and mortar has been left empty and the forces of nature have done their work on a once striving community. While Logan used to be one of the richest cities of it’s size in America, the decline of the coal industry has been a war of attrition to the small town. The recent history of Logan has been one of people leaving, not coming.
It shouldn’t come as much of a shock then when kids ask me, “Why’d you come back?” I have to imagine that most people who make it out of Logan don’t come back. For some of these teens, this could be family members, friends, and maybe even themselves someday.
Unfortunately, that has been the story of YouthWorks too. Organizationly, we’re still present and work to build and maintain relationships with community partners during the ‘off-season.’ But the kids, our ‘ministerial audience,’ don’t necessarily see the continued relationships but the influx of new people each season. With YouthWorks, teenagers come to Logan on missions trips, build short friendships and then leave, likely forever. It may be a microcosm of a much more common story. And the very same story may transcend the YouthWorks staff, given that they are in the community ten times the length of YW participants. YouthWorks has been in this community since 2000 and in that time I can’t say how many of the 56 staff would have come back to visit, much less consider moving there.
During my past two summers I would question how could we come in and doing ministry well without leaving with a sense of abandonment–a sense that some kids know too well altogether. It is a difficult tension to manage, and I don’t really have an answer at this point.
“So why’d you come back?” I wish I would have said something more meaningful. “To visit.” I wish I could tell them just how desirable Jesus sees them and sees this community. “Because I might move here in the spring.” Because you are worth it.
Ya know, I don’t know where I will end up long term–Ohio, Minnesota, West Virginia, who knows? Maybe Logan is where Jesus will have me, but maybe not. But if there is one thing I realize from spending time in Logan, it’s that ministry is for life. The kids, teens, adults and others don’t need people in their life’s for just a season, but for much longer. Friendships, relationships, community development, financial empowerment, discipleship, evangelism–these are things that take a long time, a life time for that matter. Drive-by ministry won’t work.
As a caveat, let me say that work such as this was never YouthWorks’ intention and is beyond their scope of ministry. YouthWorks is a first-rate organization, but so much more is necessary.
So I feel an awkward tension in me. The Logan’s of the world need people who are committed to them. Maybe this is my ‘Logan’ (figuratively and literally), and maybe not. But to leave unsure that there are people speaking into some of theses teens life’s, that’s unsettling.
But I have hope. I know that all the work that I have done and will do in Logan is just a small part of what God is already doing in this community. He has placed people here to do His work, and maybe God is working to place me here for a little while longer. But I am not the savior Logan needs–Jesus is. And Jesus is unmistakably here.