We Are Sardines

In the quiet, we huddle together and scold those who speak too often or above a whisper. I shift my weight carefully on the old wooden floors of the closet that protest with creaks at even the slightest movement.

Eight of us have piled into the utility closet off of the church parlor and are waiting for the rest of the “sardines.” Every muscle in my body tightens with the anticipation of voices or movement from the other side of the door. The must of old choir robes mixed with the generic old church smell that gets trapped in between the pages of pew Bibles and hymnals is particularlyphoto-1442706722731-7284acc0a2d7 dense in our close quarters.

A paper palm frond tickles my elbow, the trunk of its tree standing tall in a bucket of cement. This prop is one of many artifacts left from Vacation Bible Schools and church events where the sanctuary was transformed into a tropical Island or the Sydney Olympic games, depending on what the Sunday School curriculum companies were pushing that year.

There are only so many spots in the church building that can fit all the sardines attending youth group on any given Wednesday night. Each hider imagines they will find the new, most secret of spots. Everyone ends up in the same rotation of hideouts: the closet with the Christmas pageant outfits and fake floral arrangements, somewhere under the pews in the choir loft, or this closet off the parlor where we wait now for the rest of the kids to find us.

Once I join the cloistered youth group members, the act of hiding alerts my dormant primal instincts to survive. We all become prehistoric cave people, sheltering ourselves from a wooly mammoth, and we communicate with grunts and nudges in the darkness of our enclosure. We are alert, ready for fight or flight, knowing that at any second we many be startled by someone looking for the group hiding spot.

There is no real threat among the signs for long passed rummage sales and supplies used for church coffee houses, but for the thirty minutes the game lasts, we are in mortal danger. In the dark, in the secret place, we belong to each other. We are at the mercy of the loudest sneeze or the kid who clumsily knocks something glass off of the shelf.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr: Le Luxographe

Photo Courtesy of Flickr: Le Luxographe

Next to me, a girl leans into her boyfriend, emboldened by the covering darkness and closeness  implied in the game of Sardines. One person finds a hiding place, and everyone who finds them must join the person in that spot. You win if nobody finds you, you lose if you’re the last one to find the group. In a couple of years, someone would wise up to the fact that shoving a bunch of horny teenagers into a small dark space wasn’t the best move  for promoting a culture of chastity and purity.

It’s very popular to bring your boyfriend to youth group. I had a grand total of one boyfriend during my middle school and high school years, and we were too shy to interlace fingers during the gathering time or to cuddle during movies at lock-ins. In the presence of my peers, my limbs and extremities became clumsy and sweaty, each finger unable to coordinate with its neighbor to reach out and show affection.

The boyfriends who came to youth group were often sullen, tall boys with baggy cargo pants and shirts silk-screened with bands whose faces were frozen in eternal screams. Some wore sweatshirts made from the material of Mexican blankets, while others had long hair that hung down over their eyes.

We were encouraged to bring our friends and boyfriends, an evangelism tactic as old as the tent meeting revivals held by our ancestors, or perhaps as old the four men who lowered their paralyzed friend to be healed by Jesus. All the same, friends and boyfriends were brought to church to hear the gospel or to play ultimate frisbee or to eat a shake made from a blended happy meal.

I often found excuses to slip away during the loud games that ended with youth group members accidentally putting their hands through windows or face planting on the cement floor. In these situations, I imagined that all eyes were on me, ready to notice the way my feet bowed out when I ran or the inevitable sweat circles under my armpits.

Sardines was the great equalizer.

We are in the dark, we are all the same, we must not make a sound. I am caught up in the energy of the game. In an era when I am most singled out and exposed, I am blissfully anonymous, another set of shadowed shoulders, a counted head as we wait for the next youth group member to join. All I needed to do was find my people, to wait and breathe, and be.


The Road to Urban Chain Restaurants Is Broad and Our Youth Group Took It

I wish I’d caught the name of the worst youth conference I’ve ever attended. Perhaps overlooking the event’s name serves as a clue of just how forgettable it was.

In my second year as a youth ministry volunteer at a rural church, a group of friends and I accompanied our youth pastor and a pack of twenty-five high school teens for a huge youth conference in downtown Indianapolis. The flat, straight, and narrow roads of the country gave way to the flat, straight, and wide roads of the city as our church van rumbled down the highway.

Our teens were chomping at the bit, and I’m pretty sure it had something to do with escaping the confines of their tiny rural communities for the endless possibilities offered in the big city.

open-road-2-1446566-638x444After settling in our hotel, we mobbed the city streets, stopping by toy stores and candy shops in the downtown mall. Once outside the confines of the church van where they pumped ska music non-stop, the kidswere hanging off of street signs, hopping over parking meters, and buying prank gifts for each other. They were restless to the point of being squirrelly, loud, and always on the brink of breaking a law.

We no doubt had a social hierarchy in the youth group, but in the cause of finding junk food and raising mayhem in the big city, they worked together like a single organism. As we settled into our seats at the conference, I heaved a sigh of relief. At least for the next hour or two, they couldn’t climb anything and had to remain in their seats.

Mind you, they kicked each other, tried to flip their chairs backwards by “accident,” and were surely the rowdiest segment of the audience. Aren’t speakers meant to drown all of that out? I imagined that we’d at least get a little bit of peace once the worship band kicked things off.

As it turned out, we were just hopping onto the broad path to mayhem.

I don’t know how anyone chooses a worship band for a conference, but I suspect a top prerequisite would be effectively relating to teenagers. These guys were hardly qualified to do the music at a pre-school birthday party.

Maybe Christian camp songs in Indiana are the kinds of things that you had to be there to get. I don’t know. They launched their campfire-worthy worship set (if we dare pay it the compliment of calling it a “set)” with a song that had an off-key chorus with the following line, “So the BUFFALO said to his BROTHER…”  It even had a series of truly embarrassing hand motions that were either buffalo horns or an attempt to signing for help.

Our kids were joining right in—ironically, of course. They were buffalos, they were sincere worship ballad singers, and they were very, very rowdy teens “on fire for the Lord.” They giggled and wiggled and waved their arms around during the whole set, doing spot on impressions of the hapless worship leaders who were clearly out of their depth. Sitting a row behind our kids with friends who were also chaperoning the trip, we made our own wisecracks as the songs spiraled into oblivion.

After the worship team shuffled off the stage, the tall, lanky speaker ambled up to the microphone, snapped it from the holder, and paced back and forth—doing the sort of thing I imagine he assumed youth speakers are supposed to do.

“Oh, no…” I thought.

The jokes and snickers started immediately from our group. I reasoned that it was OK because they made them at a very tasteful volume, hardly audible outside of our little corner.

And this speaker was really asking for it.

“Do you know what Goliath was like?” he started. “He was huuuuuuuge! He ate like 70 Big Macs for dinner and carried a sword that was heavier than a car!” Throughout this he mimicked each action: eating multiple Big Macs, carrying a massive sword, etc.

The Biblical exposition actually spiraled downward from there.

The youth pastor at our church had signed us up for the most dysfunctional youth event in America. We could even hear someone in the hallway ranting to an alleged organizer that he would never bring his teens back to this event.

None of this mattered all that much to our teens. Sure, they were bored out of their minds, even with their own running commentary as they popped Mentos to each other and made plans to drink the hotel room coffee that evening so they could watch TV all night.

Soon enough, they were parading back out to the street to hunt down candy shops and buy dinner at another chain restaurant that served salty American fare while they jammed straws up their noses and wore french fries like fangs.

They were in the city with their friends and relatively relaxed college students serving as their chaperones. What could be better? An off-beat conference was a small price to pay for that.

The world was a huge, straight, hilarious road stretching onward forever with ska music, construction cones serving as megaphones, and “kick me” signs to place on our youth pastor’s back. The worst worship band and conference speakers in the state of Indiana were just a convenient backdrop.



Ed bio YAH