Let's hear it for these kids. These are not, by and large, the dweeby do-gooders my parents would have liked me to hang with back in the day. They are do-gooders, but not dweebs. These kids have social consciences and provide community service. They are not all jocks or scholars, though there are some. Most are just regular, good-hearted kids. There aren't many Mormons in this area, and these Latter-day Saint kids represent a diverse lot.
They come from varied backgrounds and races. Every notch on the attitude spectrum--from "holier-than-thou" to "devil-in-a-red-dress"--is represented. I wouldn't have it any other way. When I'm around them I'm often inclined to sing Dar Williams' cheery ode to a different joy, "Teenagers Kick Our Butts."
We have a very youth-friendly bishop in our ward. He seems to get it that the teen years are precarious. He says he has staffed the callings for work with the young people with the best folks in the ward. (Those of us who work in the women's organization, the Relief Society, or with the men in the Elders Quorum try not to feel too much like chopped liver.) Because of the increasing diversity of the youth in our area, the ward has its work cut out for it. The "D" word - diversity - is still a fairly new concept for our young Church. With only 171 institutional years, perhaps it qualifies as adolescent, too.
In November 2000, Mormon Church prophet and president Gordon B. Hinckley addressed the Church's youth and gave them a new shorter set of "Be-attitudes." They have been incorporated into the youth programs and classes in various ways: Be Grateful; Be Smart; Be Clean; Be True; Be Humble; Be Prayerful. President Hinckley expounded on each sound principle. This is a useful list of practical applications of Gospel life.
Sorting the tensions between conformity and identity, separation and belonging is the developmental work of teens. It is at this juncture when many solidify their commitment to the Church membership. Others drift away or actively decide to leave. Some young people leave the Church because the world's smorgasbord is so alluring. This will always happen. There are others, however, whom we could keep in the Church's embrace if the rest of us grew up a little.
These kids are the ones who love the Gospel or who have fledgling faith, but whose approach, background, or vocabulary is different from the norm. One young man made it to Church across town through gang neighborhoods and was criticized for not wearing a white shirt to pass the sacrament. Those who belittled that boy need to re-read Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's October 1995 General Conference talk: "That simple suggestion [to wear white shirts when passing the sacrament] is not intended to be pharisaic or formalistic. We do not want deacons or priests in uniforms or unduly concerned about anything but the purity of their lives..."
Some youth share heartfelt questions but are rebuffed by fellow Mormons. "Don't ask questions about that," one Church authority snapped at a bright 15-year-old question's about a heavenly mother. "Lots of folks have ridden that hobby-horse right out of the Church." Instead of seeing these curious youth as seekers after truth, they are shamed by teachers for having a "lack of faith." Wasn't it Joseph Smith's inquiring young mind that initiated the arrival of the Restoration of the Gospel in the first place?
We adults need to see beyond the awkwardness and effrontery that sometimes comes with adolescent development. Think of Jesus lagging back in Jerusalem to talk with the elders in the temple instead of keeping up with Mary and Joseph. When his exasperated mother found him, His response was, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" (Luke 2:49b) Holy though His answer is, isn't it also just a touch sassy? I hope so. At that age He should be. We need to remember another scripture if we are to hold these kids in our hearts and on our records. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart."