The faith chronicles

Monday, July 25, 2011


My (mis)adventures as a youth leader

One unexpected ‘diversion’ in my life is being a religious youth leader. Never in my wildest dreams have I ever dreamt of leading the youth to get closer to God and hopefully to be a good role model as well. Leading a communist cadre was far more likely a possibility for me, given my personal background (poverty-stricken), but I have surprised even myself to find me where I was led to: a very uncomfortable place I never intended to be in.

While I had a long history of being elected as a leader, I never liked leading; I enjoyed following better, i.e., I liked to be led instead, especially by a leader I found charismatic enough to look up to. Besides, the time I was called into it as a “young working professional,” I had the same ambition as other people my age -– to be successful in what I do and slowly but surely work towards a stable if not a bright future. But it seems that it was never meant to be. I got 'sidetracked' by youth service in Church, bringing me instead to directions I never ever thought existed.

I am not sure what people saw in me, but in hindsight, I was often elected as a leader even without waging a political campaign. Did they all mistake that silence for profound wisdom instead of the reality of my painful shyness? I was shy to the point of reclusive, lacked initiative, had poor imagination, had no vision, and certainly had zero desire or motive to lead. I was too self-centered to be a leader. Besides, I didn’t need to be a leader, for I was the firstborn in a brood of seven, so I really had no choice but to act at home as the eldest. I was more of a democratic kind of an elder sibling, though, never bullying nor being peremptory to anyone. I was the one being bullied by my younger brother (the one next to me) and an elder cousin.

In grade school, I escaped bullying mainly because of my status as a class leader in academics. In kindergarten, I was a shameless crybaby, but I topped the class, a fact I would repeat, effortlessly I think, in Grades 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. I fell to second place in Grade 5, with lots of eyebrows raising, especially my grandmother’s who didn’t doubt that my evil Grade 5 teacher Mrs. Paez practiced favoritism.

In high school, I graduated as the class salutatorian, so it was a kind of a failing for me. I must have felt that I didn’t live up to my name, but I was fine, to be fair, because I honestly thought that Jonathan, the class valedictorian who became a close friend, was fully deserving of the honor. Nevertheless, I couldn’t believe it myself that I started out as the class president (via election) in the first year (when only a handful of elementary schoolmates knew me), and was the class president of various clubs in succeeding years, including the Math Club, a club I had no right to be in because I hated the very subject. I also was a staffer of the school organ several times and even won writing contests in and out of school. (I never rose to editor, though.)

In college, I guess I lay low, for a change, not wishing to prove myself further because I didn’t have to; besides, I didn’t feel happy constantly proving my worth. The result was I lay so low I couldn’t remember any achievement, other than topping an exam in one algebra class, and that’s just by chance (and I’m not trying to be humble). The only other achievements were no achievements at all: being a member of the UP Biology Society (in which all I did was be a plain member) and the UP Student Catholic Action (both Baguio ‘chapters’). I wound up being the latter’s vice-president later, with responsibilities that were not that hard (sponsor Wednesday masses, go to an outreach for orphaned kids, etc.). Oh, in my fourth year, I do remember being elected as the batch representative of something having to do with student complaints (I couldn't even remember what it all was). A geology professor even exclaimed at me, “You’re popular!” You could say I got tired of the limelight in college, and being out of it was a pure choice, and when it hounded me again, it was too late: I was about to graduate in a few months. One fratman belonging to Scintilla Juris, in fact, told me, “How the heck did you escape our notice?” (But I was glad not to be hazed, thank you.) Alas, for that campus fraternity, I became popular again when it was time to say goodbye and move on to life after school.

I guess I didn’t like leading because there was quite a rebel inside of me that said I didn’t want to be responsible for anything. I wanted to be a normal kid – in fact, longed to be. I secretly wanted to be just like the rest: carefree, could afford to be irresponsible and still be loved and accepted. I must have been resenting responsibility because it was too heavy a burden for my young shoulders to bear. If I had agreed to any of them, it must be because I believed it was the way to court approval and win love.

It was, therefore, a ridiculous idea for me to be a servant-leader for the youth in a little transparochial lay religious community that I had joined in my desire to have a more enriching spiritual life.

I was thus a picture of incredulity when I was chosen to be among the servants under an existing youth leader. It should take no less than a miracle for me to even so much as say a hesitant yes –- and what did I know, it did indeed! God made sure there would be a miracle. Praying in the middle of dawn one day, I suddenly heard a loving but firm voice of an old man that said, “Resty, I want you to follow me.” I was stunned, though surprisingly not overcome by fear; I found myself not panicking, but I also found myself unable to say no to God. I would never forget that voice, and I learned from that voice that the entity I had been calling God was surprisingly fatherly, not a stern policeman. He's more of an Abba or Daddy. I cannot recall any experience like that nor have I ever heard God's voice that way again. (It was a very positive encounter, so I sure hope it won't be the first and last.)

Apparently, I doubted the first time I was assigned by a community elder (Tita Linda Vasquez) to the position. I remember asking God absentmindedly that I needed a proof of God’s will because I would never submit to anything created by human preferences. I didn’t expect God would grant this skeptic’s secret wish so swiftly. My yes, of course, would lead to a quaint personal history.

Being a servant-leader (emphasis on servant) for the youth broke new grounds for me, forcing me to really, really get out of my comfort zone just to level up with kids of ages 11 to 20 from mostly well-to-do families (relative to my background). I wish I could recall all the things I did, but maybe I just had to content myself with the highlights: planning and facilitating entire afternoons of activities including summer camps, giving talks of spiritual nature, meeting with total strangers as resource persons or consultants, acting in front of an audience in a short play, learning so many songs and group-singing in front of an audience (non-paying), helping produce and direct plays (it’s complicated work!), interacting quite intimately with children (and their parents and friends) from socioeconomic backgrounds several notches far removed from mine, bringing kids home to their parents late at night and to the southernmost and northernmost parts of the city (the most groan-inducing part; thank God I didn't know how to drive so we had to find one), going on outings to places I didn’t even know existed (the most thrilling part). One unexpected reward of all this is making friends with my fellow youth servants by going out on our own (you could say group-dating). These people are some of my closest friends up to this day.

I surely enjoyed all these mini-adventures but there’s always sacrifice involved, plus the constant heavy feeling of doubt (Why am I here? What am I doing? Why?). The worst part was I always had to forego something in favor of the service God called us to. For example, when a dear cousin came back to town from Japan after a few years of working, he was looking for me and I was far away in Laguna or Cavite conducting a summer camp for the kids.

Serving the youth, however, led me to this other, most unexpected adventure: the heartbreak, in my mind, of not being compensated by God for my effort. There were times I felt burnt out, left out because I spent the best of my youth serving total strangers and I couldn’t even brag about it because it was always a team effort and I was quite incapable and inadequate. I couldn't seem to do God's assigned work the best way possible. I often complained to God in frustration, “Where, oh where, oh God, are the people better equipped in this?”

Sometimes, I even lapsed into feeling resentful because, despite the sacrifice of service, I felt that I wasn’t rewarded nor was I even recognized. I was working in a job that’s not my dream job, I was still single, I had no savings and investments and properties, and worst of all, my health was beginning to be a bother for me.

After a long struggle with my self and God, I’ve finally found the courage to thank God for all these setbacks somehow, because they exposed the real me. I felt so naked for being such a charlatan all along, serving God with the unspoken desire to be amply rewarded –- in short, serving God with a selfish agenda. Maybe I was also quite incredulous that God would ask me to serve people I didn't expect to serve. Well, I was expecting to serve the least: orphans, marginalized, etc., but God's ways are so strange.

Growing up with the notion that love should be earned, at the back of my mind, I seemed to have expected God to do the same as I thought my parents did or should have done: honor me with rewards, of recognition, honor or adulation at least. Worse, the many I-could-have-beens made me regretful and wondering whether following what I heard from God was well worth it, whether I made the right choice or not.

It didn’t occur to me at once that whatever reward I would have would be given to me in the next life, and the happy twist, as we all know and believe, is that it would be eternal.

I now put my faith and trust in the Lord that this is true. After quite a long sabbatical after I’ve given up serving the youth to search myself, I am back in the little community again, ever-ready for new service, without the illusion that I would be hopefully ignored for the more challenging ones (i.e., the services I least like and expect, like serving the youth, haha).

In whatsoever case, I hereby choose at this juncture to be happy, peaceful, satisfied, and fulfilled, with whatever I have right now, seeing how I’ve been enriched another way. I choose to be of service even without recognition and reward, to anyone of God's own choosing, in the thought that having served is a privilege, not a burden.

After all, if God didn’t call me in this, what could I have done and where would I be now in my spiritual life? I might have been very successful in terms of career, but I would most likely be hopelessly corrupt as well, very far away from the will of God in my life. I may not have the best of everything, but He is taking care of me. I still have a job that sustains me. I have a borrowed roof to protect me from the elements. I have clothes and shoes to wear. The future? I entrust it to God.

I figure that God must have set everything up for me, after all, for my own good and not just the good of my wards. As the tired refrain in community says, “God is not to be outdone in generosity.” (He is a God of embarrassing riches, of an unending universe, for Pete’s sake.) After all, He knows best what my weaknesses are, what I can and can’t handle, and especially what is best for me.

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