Azaria Spencer

Youth and Motorbikes

I can still vividly recall the first time I watched not one, but two of the boys from our youth group ride off on a motorbike. I was not ready for it then and I am not ready for it now. It depends how well you know me as to whether you and wanting to call me a hypocrite right now, because many people know that I am partial to a motorbike and have often jumped at opportunities to ride them.
However, context is everything. I have come to understand what a motorbike here can represent, what it can imply.

So, when a young man, known to us as having some gang related dealings, came to our centre to collect two of our young men alarm bells began to chime.
Let’s just say there is no way he has a job that pays well enough to buy a bike, and one of the ways he might have come to have it is through gang related favours or tasks.
I stood in the doorway of our centre as one of our boys got in the driver’s seat and the other took his place on the back, as the third person on the bike. Before I had time to decide whether to say anything or not, they were revving up and off they went. Mother instinct kicked in and I called down the street, ‘be careful, be safe.’
I am not their mother, and I cannot tell them what they can and cannot do. I realised in that moment I had no control, no real authority, no right, all I had was love and care. All I could do was offer words which reflected the love in my heart. These boys are growing, and they will make many decisions some good some not so great and I will be powerless to stop or protect them.
But I can love them and show them I care. I can hope and pray that they learn and grow and that they make more good choices than bad. That we can walk alongside them to guide them in their lives as they try and navigate their way through their teens and into adulthood in one of the most complex and challenging environments I have ever come across.

Life in ‘la terminal,’ isn’t easy for anyone, all demographics face challenges some more obvious than others. Of course, we all want to help the children, innocent and vulnerable. And the women, taken advantage of, desperate and turning to things like prostitution. But what about the men? They are harder to want to help, because unfortunately in this context they are often, not always, the root of the problems. They run the gangs, they create the demand for prostitutes, they are the abusive parties. The men are the ones holding the power and making the rules in this macho society and when you add in poverty and depravity, the results are heartbreakingly destructive.
So, of course we often don’t want to help them. They get forgotten, neglected, blamed.

However, there is something far more complex to consider, the cycle of poverty and immorality runs deep, generations upon generations deep. It takes generations of misguided mindsets and abusive behaviours to create the lifestyle so prevalent in ‘la terminal.’ And perhaps instead of viewing men as part of the problem we should be viewing them as part of the solution. And where better to begin than with the young men, the present young generations and the future leaders.

Many people look at the youth we work with here and see ‘naughty’ boys, young men causing problems, getting involved in bad things. And that might be partly true. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be different.
There is so much potential for change, it only takes one person to transform a generation. Old behaviours can be broken, attitudes changed. Value can be given, purpose found.
I don’t see young men with problems I see young men with potential.
With Christ all things are possible, generations can be redeemed, and a generation can be transformed.

Transformation and Friendships

Jose and Melvin 1

All of the children we work with have at least 5 ‘risk factors,’ that is why we work with them and their families. Therefore, all of the children we work with come from challenging and difficult family lives. Of course, there are some who have more challenging lives than others, or who have suffered under much more traumatic circumstances.

José is one of those children. His past and his current living situation is extremely difficult, and he has clearly suffered trauma in his shot life. There are things about his life that I won’t share here but trust me when I say his displays of challenging behaviour are understandable. Having come to know him over the past 2 years I have seen his vulnerable side as well as all his walls and barriers.

José does not always interact well with others, both adults and children, he finds it particularly hard to be in big groups and to concentrate. Yesterday I got to witness something truly remarkable and beautiful. José was having his last mentoring session with Joseph, a close friend and colleague. Joseph is about to go back to the UK for 6-8 weeks and so José was allowed a treat and to choose a friend to go with him. He chose a boy called Melvin, who he plays well with. I went with them as extra support. Let me tell you about our time together and you will see why yesterday was so special.

Joseph and I arrived at our mentoring centre to find two very excited boys, ready for their outing. We first had to get their permission forms from their guardians, so we went with them to their homes. When they had their forms signed, we walked back to the centre to set off on our trip. As we walked, they both hugged and thanked me and Melvin looked up at me and said, “te quiero mucho” – “I love you a lot.” My heart melted, it was clear how excited and how special this was for them. We piled into Joseph’s car and off we went up to a place called Cayala, which is basically a big open air commercial centre, complete with fun places to do activities and games.

Jose and Melvin with Joseph 1

Now for the laser quest, we arrived at the games centre and geared up for a few games of competitive laser quest. Only for these children do I engage in such activities. I am not a huge fan of running around in the dark in an intensive game of tag, but seeing their excitement and hearing them laugh certainly made it worth it. Dare I say I even enjoyed it. It was great to see them work together to beat Joseph and I. To see them letting off some steam in a fun and healthy way. The true joy was seeing José, a boy who can often act out in frustration and aggression, smiling nonstop and enjoy playing with his friend. After our laser quest adventure, the boys sat and played Mario-cart to calm down a bit. They sat close to each other, chatting away as they raced their virtual vehicles. Beautiful moments like these are difficult to capture in words of photos.

Jose and Melvin games

Before heading back to the centre, we went across to Mc Donald’s for a quick drink. This Mc happens to have a small indoor soft play, with slides and other fun things. After asking if he could go and play Melvin barely waited for our response before his shoes were off and he was in there.

Now, quite a lot of the children we work with feel very self-conscious about removing their shoes, due to poor hygiene. José frequently has low hygiene (we have often showered him in our centre and helped him with this) and was very hesitant to take his shoes off. A bit of encouragement from Melvin to come and play and an approving thump up from Joseph meant that he chose to be brave. He took his shoes off and in he went to play. I can’t express how this was to witness. The trust it displayed, José took courage and chose to trust that his friend would not mock him or mind the state of his feet. Watching some of his walls come down, seeing a softer side of him made my heart warm. It is hard to like some of his choices and actions sometimes, but never is it hard to love him. He is just a boy. A boy looking for approval, a boy looking to be cared for and about. Simply, he is just a boy looking to be loved, with a good kind of love. A love that is consistent, honest and unconditional.

Jose and Melvin with Ronald

I have had the privilege to see how mentoring really can change lives. Little by little José has let Joseph in and started to trust him. He has certainly pushed a lot of boundaries and acted out many times. He has rejected Joseph repeatedly, testing him, finding out if he really cared. If he would still be there. Joseph remained consistent, set up firm boundaries and standards in love and is seeing the benefit. It is slow progress, often with one step forward followed by serval back, but change is happening. And we are all learning and growing together.