Summer! The time of the year we all looked forward to as teenagers. It was as if summer was this seasonal passage way that would transport you into another universe – a world without teachers; books; bullies; cold classrooms; long hallways without a window to witness the movement of the sun and the passing of the day, and worse yet, cafeteria food. No! This world was alive and inviting and adventurous. In the summer everything in the world comes alive and vibrates with color and sound. Although, I’m sure some of that radiance could be attributable to the unbending sunrays beating down on me, causing mild dizziness and heavy eye lids. But despite the unsettling heat, the world seems so more bright than usual when you look back it intently; to see it for what it really is, or maybe, what it could be. For me, summer has always been full of fun and friends and camps. That has been my experience growing up, my privilege. Looking forward to summer in a small town with minimum worry and responsibility was there for me to take for granted. In contrast to my summer experience growing up, Benjamin* who sometimes like to go by his nickname Ben, had a completely different take on the summer. The privilege that summer camp offered me was to be able to come and go, unchanged, and never having to be an essential part of me. I could leave camp or decide to stay home from camp with it having very little impact on the normal shape that my life took at home. Camp was not a place for Ben to merely discover new joys of the summer, but it was a kind of freedom- a freedom to rest in the context of a real friendship.

It’s hard to imagine a thirteen-year-old kid in Third Ward needing to find rest, but that’s the reality. The kids in our neighborhood, faces adorned with excitement, look forward to summer camp here at Agape every year. We all do. Of course, planning and organizing something anything isn’t always fun or magical, and we all tend to just see it as work, but making plans and preparations for summer camp at Agape is! As summer approached, conversation in the office would be immersed with excitement and tempered celebration, as if something new were coming into the world. Astonishingly, something new was coming into my world – a kind of unexpected friendship with Ben that was paradigm changing for me.

I’ve noticed that for most, the summer break in the inner city becomes much more of a burden for the parents. Not only do they have to continue work from day to day, the summer mornings bring a completely different rhythm that could be frustrating, and in a sense, offbeat with their own routine. Work may start at eight in the morning, but camp won’t start until ten. What do you do with the kids in that two or three hour gap? Are they old enough and responsible enough to prepare their own breakfast, ready themselves for the day, and make it to camp on their own? What if they have younger siblings? What about them? Unfortunately, these are questions that parents have to wrestle with throughout the summer. Although summer brings a kind of liberation to a kid’s daily routine free from the tyranny of books and test scores, its enchantment doesn’t always reach all of the broken places that exist at home.

Ben is familiar with the weight of this morning pressure. His father would wake him up super early every morning around six. His dad had to be at work by seven, and so Ben would get dropped off at his grandmother’s home and just hang out until it was time for him to make it to camp, which started at ten. He would stay there most days throughout the summer if his father didn’t have the morning drive of getting him there on the way to work so early. His grandmother stays in apartments just up the street from my home. They were built in 1974 and most of its beauty has faded with the years. It’s not the prettiest living situation and it’s obvious that most of the residents are there for it’s utility and not the aesthetic. Teen camp was seven hours of fun, four days a week. I lead exercise games in the mornings to kick off the day, but a few of our kids would miss out – trying to make it to camp. To help relieve some of that morning weight on the parents, we arranged for those kids to be picked up in the morning by the teen staff, and Ben was my guy. I told him at the end of our first week of camp, “I’ll be there to pick you up early. Nine o’clock bro, be outside so you can just hop in the car,” and he gave me a chortling “okay.”

There was something fun and appealing about Ben’s presence. The bright and dark colors in his clothes that would collide, never coming to agree with one – another. The unevenness of his long white tube socks springing out of his black shoes – one pulled up to its proper place around the calf and the other always slothful and unwilling to stay put, falling just above the ankle. His composure and smile wouldn’t just merely compensate for the stubborn sock or mixed colors, but they held everything in its place and animated it with life. I knew Ben to be quick – tempered in unbearable situations that teens have to deal with, other teenagers! One joke or playful gesture could quickly morph into agitation and then argument, always topped with the infamous line you would hear screamed across the basketball court, “You play too much man!” In which, really, you only have but less than a second to respond to with urgency. He’s pretty short and stubby, and where his height failed to generate the respect he desired from other kids on the basketball court, his mouth and confidence was competent enough to do the work of making up for it. The first morning I pulled up and found him sitting on the tail of a car, which I’m sure wasn’t his family’s, waiting there ten minutes early. He hopped in and noticed my bag of Shipley’s Donuts, just two, but they were creamy enough to see the moist ring imprinted through the bag. He saw the bag and yelled saying “ah, thank you Mr. Mike!!! You didn’t have to man.” I really didn’t, but his excitement was too compelling so I gave in and we shared. Every morning, in the place of him sitting on his grandmother’s couch waiting those few hours for camp to come around, I would pick him up a little earlier and we would grab breakfast before heading there. A relationship where I came in thinking that I’m meeting a minute need started to take a completely different shape.

I quickly noticed that our talks in the car were liberating for him. He had a space to be free. Having to find approval from peers at camp his hard work at his age, not to mention, maintaining life at home wasn’t a break either. He didn’t always enjoy the atmosphere at home; at thirteen he would have to take up the responsibilities of taking care of his grandmother’s house and two little brothers while she would walk to the store or to pay a bill. There wasn’t much room for mistakes and he didn’t enjoy the backlash for his shortcomings. Anger and resentment was life for him outside of camp. Although I’ve known him prior to camp this year from the summer before, a new Ben was unfolding in that car. His guards were down and he would vent about his emotional toil at home and school; his aspirations of the future; his best friend at camp that he secretly has a crush on; or how he believes he could beat me terribly in a game of basketball, of course he was dreaming though. By and large, he had my ear and that’s what he wanted most – an ear.

Ben would constantly remind me of important qualities that we can easily overlook in a person, distracted by triviality or a mission to save someone from their mess. In those moments just listening and laughing with him, he reminded me of the things that matter most to me, my need – a loving and caring interaction that gives a friendship composition and good taste. Spending time with him every morning reminded me of the unique place that a friendship has in a person’s life. A place to be broken and loved isn’t always in a church building or worship service; many times, your friendship is the sanctuary or that sacred place. Friendship is an inconspicuous, surprising, and resilient place. Our friendship was an intersection in which we both mutually gave and received one another’s time, space, and energy. Overall, we received love and grace from one another.

 

-Mike Nichols

*name changed for anonymity
 

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