Working with children and young people has its ups and downs. Ellie Hughes, founder of Riverbank Trust, reflects on her experience of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and considers what it has taught her about ministry with families
We started walking from Kilimanjaro base camp about six hours ago. The thin shimmer of dawn breaks through the dark and there is still so much further to go. I’m cold, gasping for breath and everything hurts. I stop.
This doesn’t feel brave or adventurous, and I’m ashamed of the sobs that fall as I inform my steadfast Tanzanian guide that I can’t, that I’m too tired... I just can’t.
He takes my hand and pulls, and we keep walking. Hours later, we reach the summit of the highest free-standing mountain in the world, and the rooftop of Africa. Snow, snow, snow as far as I can see and now a blinding light that covers everything, including us, in glory.
Not only did we make it to the top, but our team of twelve also hit our fundraising target to raise money for Youth for Christ, a ministry working across Britain to see young people’s lives changed by Jesus.
Mountains take us to glorious peaks, but what of the journey, the adventure? The word ‘adventure’ derives from the Latin for ‘to arrive’ or ‘something that is about to happen’. If we simply focus on reaching the summit we are easily in danger of missing the adventure right before us. By only focusing on the top we make the experience much smaller. We miss the ‘happening’ in every moment.
As youth and children’s workers, we so often look for breakthrough moments in our ministry. Measureable successes understandably give us that sense of arrival and achievement, and of course we long for these. But so often joy is found in the little victories; in the day-by-day and the step-by-step.
I work with a Christian charity called Riverbank Trust, which seeks to love, support and befriend vulnerable single mums and their families. Working with vulnerable families, many of whom have suffered deep abuses and rejection, has taught me that although I long to see dramatic change and transformation in their lives it is in the regular act of building relationship that the adventure is actually happening. Our desire for the ‘mountaintop experience’ is a human problem that reaches deep into the soul and, unless rewired, will steal the greatest adventures God has for us from under our noses.
Mountains take us to glorious peaks, but what of the failures? What of the huge percentage of people who attempt to ascend Kilimanjaro and don’t complete the climb? What do we do with the perceived failed attempts? Where do we put them and how do we see them? Do they merely become footnotes to the edited highlights of the story of our lives?
Failure, I learned on the mountain, is part of expedition, as it is in life and ministry. Much like an expedition, the elements are often against you. Sometimes it simply doesn’t go the way you planned it. We have all known those moments of perceived failure: the young person who never comes back, the project that doesn’t take off, the volunteers who lose interest or passion.
Riverbank Trust was founded on a vision to unconditionally love and build family around vulnerable single parents for the long term. However, I have discovered, often at a painful cost, that vision and reality are two different things. I have often missed the opportunity to love, be kind and give, allowing selfishness and pride to take over instead.
Vision is the place we always want to get to – it’s what we see with our eyes fixed on the summit, and it’s important – but the reality is that in the walk to get there we will stumble, and we will be disappointed. But we have a choice about what we do in those moments, and perhaps even more importantly what we will let Jesus do with them. ‘Failure’, as we see it, is so often an opportunity for grace; to give up our weaknesses to a mighty and loving God whose plans are immeasurably bigger than even our picture of the mountaintop.
Luke 9:24 says: “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” Our great, adventurous God left the glory of the mountaintop, wrapped himself in human flesh and became the very worst of us so we might be found forever perfect in him. He conquered the unconquerable for us. Jesus lived a wild adventure; not because he had to, but because it is a rescue story written from a place of love that we cannot live for ourselves. This wild, audacious, sacrificial type of love is lavished on us by a God who makes it possible for us to live out this kind of adventurous love.
A Jesus adventure is a life laid down. It’s freedom from the worry and fear of failure because the summit moment has been won for us. This adventure is not about you, but about the miracles of grace and wonder God will work through you.
In the early years of Riverbank Trust I was crippled by guilt when I couldn’t be there for a family, or when I struggled to love them. But in the ‘failing’, the stumbling and the weakness I learned that in my weakness and imperfection God is always able to work. One of the single mums we have known for many years recently commented that one of the reasons she knows we love her is that over the years we have forgiven each other and said sorry to each other. Her experience of God’s grace working through our imperfect attempt at loving her has been a powerful testimony in a life that has been littered with experiences of broken relationship, where people have simply walked away.
It’s in our surrender, in holding our ministries to young people and families with open hands, that God is able to move and work. In so doing, our adventure moves from a place of burden and guilt to great joy and freedom, as each step becomes a moment of possibility for the Spirit to bring life. The gospel offers us a life of vulnerability where the kingdom breaks through in all the moments we offer ourselves, in our human weakness, to God.
This self-sacrificial, adventurous life is the antidote to a generation of young people turned in on themselves. Recent research commissioned by Youth for Christ depicts a generation that spends more time on social media than any other activity in their lives, yet they admit that it has the most negative impact on their well-being. This is a generation that is confused, lonely, frightened and unsure of the future.
But I also believe it is a generation that is not without hope, for whom the gospel has much to say about the potential for an expedition that takes them away from themselves and is all about others.
I love that Jesus picked as his best friends a bunch of twelve young men, teenagers some of them, who constantly worried about themselves. They worried about when they would eat, sleep and have time to themselves. They fought among themselves for recognition and affirmation, and struggled with identity. They laid down their lives for the gospel, doubted and doubled back, yet still kept going. I wonder if that’s because they had discovered a greater adventure of sacrificial love.
This is the only hope for a generation straining under the weight of themselves. We have to offer our young people a vision of a greater adventure, in which they radically love the lost, the wounded and the wanderer. Their adventure won’t necessarily be quantifiable or measurable, and in the usual ways the world might measure success it may look like failure. But this is the adventure that always wins, where every step is a moment of victory because there is no failure in Christ and every surrendered heart to him will yield an eternal fruit.
This adventure is about living in community and trekking down the valleys. It’s walking with the lame limping at the back, and carrying the load for the weary wanderer. It’s journeying with those who don’t look or live like us.
Living an otherly life is costly, and when we choose to live alongside and for the benefit of others we open the door to pain, vulnerability and all the ways humans can fail.
This kind of adventure starts with us, the generation that goes before, their leaders and families of whatever shape and size. The psalmist says that one generation speaks to another of the wonders of the Lord. But the only way we can do this is if we’re on this adventure too; hand outstretched to the one crying, unsure, stumbling. We must model one slow, adventurous step at a time as we live out a calling that brings the promise of eternal blessing.
An adventure of vulnerability and surrender is costly because it will always lead us away from ourselves, but it’s also authentic, a trait young people are crying out for. It’s something real and flawed, but something that can still be made beautiful. This is the good news of the gospel, but as leaders of young people we have to be prepared to live it out.
Expeditions need leaders: someone who is not only prepared to go first, but is also willing to stay with the team, walk with them in all seasons and even fail with them. It’s how we make it up the mountain - as a team, a community of old and young people with our eyes on each other taking one slow, faith-filled step at a time.
Ellie Hughes is founder of Riverbank Trust and local ministries development manager for Youth For Christ yfc.co.uk.