by Michael P. Murphy
It was the dead of night. Dark. Cold. Foreboding. Yeah, definitely foreboding. I sensed an uneasiness about me that I could not explain. I feared I was destined to fail my mission.
I hurried up the hill, panting for breath in the high altitude. I found refuge behind the old chapel and hoped no one saw me. After a few minutes I peered around a corner. Nothing. Only the dark forest in the dead of night, and it was real, real quiet. This was not good.
The forest reeked of a strong pine scent that reminded me of those aerosol air fresheners, only not as strong. I tried to adjust my eyes to the darkness, but to no avail. Out here in the wilderness there was no such thing as a street light. The moon only showed a quarter of itself. This was no help to me at all.
I flipped the switch on my flashlight and aimed the beam further up the hill. Nothing but trees and brush. Nothing moved. I shut off the beam and carefully and slowly began my ascent up the hill. That was when the attack came.
An entire battalion of teenage boys descended on me like a bad dream, armed with their weapon of choice. Shaving cream. Lots of shaving cream. The hollow whizzing of white foam exiting spouts seemed endless. All I could do was hunker down in the fetal position and take it like a man (if that made any sense). One kid thought it would be funny to raise the back of my shirt and squirt away. By the time they were done with me I must have looked like a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie with pounds of Redi-Whip piled on. I reeked of menthol Barbasol. (I would have preferred Redi-Whip.)
My mission, such as it was, was to get those kids back in their dorms. Instead they laughed their way into the darkness and escaped me for the rest of the night.
These are the kind of things that happen to volunteers at church camp, or at least it did back in the day. My rite of passage, so to speak. Ugh.
A Summer Place
What led to that moment? I remember it well. You can’t forget certain turning points in your life.
At the risk of dating myself, let me start in the early 1970s. I had been attending church all of my life, but somehow, call it destiny or whatever, this was the time when I began taking my faith seriously. It was a happy accident, and no one was more surprised than I was.
Those church kids will eat me alive! I won’t do it!
I left my home in Phoenix and was staying with my grandparents in Ohio for the summer. Fresh out of high school with no job or classes to attend, I felt free to do what young adults do best. Sleep in every morning. My grandfather was OK with that, but not on Sundays. Not only did he demand I go to church, but I had to attend a dreaded Sunday school class too.
No! I can’t go to Sunday school! Those church kids will eat me alive! I won’t do it!
In response, my grandfather offered only two words: “Get dressed.”
I remember having to borrow one of my grandfather’s neckties, and I wore it with a patterned shirt that didn’t exactly match but, hey, I was dressed for church. That Sunday morning my grandfather took me to the old house on the property where the high school group met.
That’s when something strange happened. I felt welcomed. Everyone was nice, friendly, and downright hospitable. Even the Sunday school teacher. It didn’t take long to realize, I like these people!
Through the course of that summer this wonderful group of Christian teens embraced me as one of their own. Every weekend I sat with them during Sunday evening worship and joined them for Youth After Church (YAC). This was a group serious about their Christian faith, and many of them had ambitions to enter into the ministry. I spent the rest of the summer with that group and found myself expanding my horizons in ways I could not have imagined.
I eventually returned to my home in Phoenix, got a job, and saved my money so I could return the next summer. One of the first things I did when I returned to Ohio was pay a visit to the youth minister I had gotten to know the summer before. His name was John Autrey, and by this time he had been promoted to senior minister. John was so pleased to see me he took me out to lunch. I guess I can say he was the first Christian leader to invest in me. He was a good man. He eventually left that church to minister somewhere in the South. While I regret losing contact with him, he left me with something invaluable.
I rediscovered my faith. To this day it has never left me.
me, a Youth Coach?
Fast forward to a sunny morning in 1977, a time when shaving cream sold better than electric razors and I would later understand why. I was happy with my new career in dental technology and a new church home in Phoenix that was as welcoming as that wonderful group in Ohio. I was a baptized Christian and ready to make my mark in the world for Christ. Little did I realize that opportunity was about to knock.
I was walking across the church parking lot after Sunday worship when I was approached by our new youth minister, Don Wilson. He was planning a new and different youth program on Wednesday nights, and he wanted me to be a part of it as a leader. My role would not be anything like a Sunday school teacher. I would be what he called a “youth coach.”
The program was pretty radical for its time, I suppose. The youth group would be broken into four different teams and compete against each other in games and attendance. That’s right, attendance. The more kids on the team, the more points they would accumulate, and that required inviting their friends. After the games there would be a short concert by a live band in the Fellowship Hall, followed by Don delivering a short devotion and closing prayer.
I still had trouble perceiving myself as an adult.
It was radical, all right. After some hesitation and reluctance (at this time I still had trouble perceiving myself as an adult), I decided to accept Don’s offer. After all, what else was I doing with myself on Wednesday nights? I wasn’t watching Charlie’s Angels, that was for sure, and I wasn’t alone in signing onto being a leader in this very different sort of church program—several of my other friends in our college-career class signed up too.
Don dubbed the Wednesday night event as Out-A-Sight. (He was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s tune from a decade earlier, ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ which contained the lyrics, Baby, everything is alright, uptight outta sight.) Out-A-Sight went on to be a big success on Wednesday nights at our church. Over the next 12 years the program evolved and other youth ministers stepped in, but I did my best to be a good youth coach and role model for those kids. I took them to lunch, ice cream, movies, sports events, and anything else to engage in fellowship. I attended their music performances, football games, basketball games, baseball games, stage plays, graduations, and later, weddings. Better yet, my faith matured and I made treasured friends that I still have to this day.
It wasn’t always fun though. I attended two teenagers’ funerals during that time. One was the older brother of a girl who often came to church as a guest of one of our regular members. With no church home of their own, the family asked our church to do the funeral. Years later one of our teen boys committed suicide. He was a quiet, good kid. I will always wish I did a better job of reaching out to him.
I eventually retired from the business of being a youth coach to give attention to an illness in my family. I figured God would not begrudge me for pulling back. After all, I put in 12 years as a youth coach. That was enough. Right?
Little did I know that God wasn’t through with me yet.
posted on January 13, 2019
Meet the Author:
Michael P. Murphy is a happily retired dental laboratory technician who now lives the life of a freelance writer in Scottsdale, Arizona. His articles and stories have appeared in The Lookout, Encounter, Straight, Live Wire and R-A-D-A-R. His 1990 novel Wise Up, Zack for Christian teens was published by Standard Publishing. (You still might find it if you dig deep enough on a used book website.) Michael is also a feature writer for Wander AZ, a travel magazine for Arizona tourists.