I remember that unfinished basement, with its square brown laminate tiles, non-working 50’s fridge that Mom used as a pantry cabinet, cords with jeans and PJ’s hung up to dry running the length of the ceiling, pine green cabinets lining the walls. To do my laundry (thanks, Mom, for teaching me young!), I had to duck under the clothes hanging like a damp forest from the low ceiling and make my way to the back wall, where the washer and dryer sat in the corner.
It was a pretty ordinary day, if I remember – until I closed the lid of the washing machine, and an almost audible voice struck me. I enjoyed leading a youth prayer group, playing keyboard on the youth worship team, and going on summer missions trips. I was planning to go into youth ministry as a career. I was thinking and praying about my plans for the future when all of a sudden, God brought everything to a whirling stop with a totally different thought: “Go to public school next year.”
This was not part of my plan. I had been homeschooled from preschool on – and I loved it. I was finishing up my sophomore year as a homeschool student. The thought of going to the large public school near me, where I knew no one, made my heart race and my palms sweaty.
These were the days directly following the Columbine shooting, and security everywhere was getting tougher – but especially in our school district, where it felt as though were ahead of the national curve on drug sniffing dogs, metal detectors, police monitoring the hallways, and tall fences surrounding the school property. But I couldn’t shake that lightning-bolt directive. So I registered for my junior year – with an eclectic mix of general and advanced classes, since the guidance counselor wasn’t sure whether “homeschooled” meant “advanced” or “slacker”.
There was immense variety among the 2,000 students at my high school, and I was fascinated by it all. I couldn’t stop watching the different ways my classmates interacted, talked, and acted.
Observing paid off in some good and bad ways. I learned words I had never heard at home. I learned how similar people were – but that despite their similarities, everyone liked sticking with their own groups. I learned to back waaaay up when I heard a fist-fight (or hair-pulling fight) break out. I learned how little control teachers had when the entire class was intent on not learning something. I learned how much more experimenting went on outside of school than in the science lab. I learned the depth of self-consciousness one can feel when sitting alone at lunch – or at the “wrong” table. And I learned that observation is fine – except for in class, where your grade was affected by something teachers called “participation.”
When I came home exhausted, weary of the isolation and loneliness in the midst of crowds, my dad would ask me to name one good thing that had happened during the day. Sometimes I thought of something that made me smile – sometimes I couldn’t think of a single thing.
Eventually I made enough friends to feel like I wasn’t just wandering through a forest of strangers at school, and I made enough of a positive impression on my teachers to be asked to be the baccalaureate speaker. But still, I was relieved when I finally graduated and went back off into a Christian bubble for college.
The detour was over, and I was back to my plan – my plan to get a degree and eventually a job in youth ministry. Almost as soon as I started, though, my plan took another sharp turn. The youth ministry job descriptions I saw were mostly advertising for males, and sounded like they were looking for someone to run a club for Christian kids. I was much more interested in outreach to kids who hadn’t heard about Jesus yet. And… I was a woman. So I switched from a youth ministry major to an education major, thinking that I could still have a positive influence on kids, even if I wasn’t officially a youth pastor.
After college I moved back home, married my college sweetheart, and found a job teaching language arts to 6th and 8th graders. Finally, it was all coming together! I was working with kids, at long last!
Even before my first year was over, however, it became obvious to me that teaching really wasn’t the same thing as youth ministry. It wasn’t the perfect fit I had been trying to find. I had worked so hard to figure out where my path should lead… somewhere between youth group and teaching, something with kids who might not know Jesus yet, something that I could be passionate about. And yet, I still hadn’t found it.
In the midst of this confusing revelation, my mom asked me out to lunch. There, she explained that she had been part of a prayer group for the past two years. I vaguely knew this already, but had been busy working my own plan and hadn’t paid much attention to hers.
It was what they were praying for that was the biggest revelation. They were praying about starting a local branch of YoungLives – a compassionate outreach ministry for teenage moms. They were praying about recruiting Christian women to serve as mentors who would walk beside teen moms during one of the toughest periods of their lives. They were praying for the chance to befriend teen moms and introduce them to a Friend who already loved them deeply. And they were praying for a staff person to jumpstart all of this… in the very high school I had so painfully and sometimes grudgingly attended for my junior and senior years. The sun suddenly shown so brightly in that restaurant that tears jumped into my eyes.
Have you ever just KNOWN what you were supposed to do? In that moment, my calling became so distinct – so clear. I hadn’t been able to find my own way, but somehow, God had prepared me, trained me, and brought His plan within inches of me. And I don’t know if I even would have seen it had my mom not asked me point-blank if I would be interested in stepping into it.
Not only was this exactly the kind of ministry I would have pictured myself doing – had I known it existed – but I already knew the school. I knew the staff, the hallways, the smell, the mood of the school. I knew that even though I didn’t look like a teen mom, talk like one, or have much in common with them on the outside – the barrier between us wasn’t as big as it looked. I knew all of this because… because of what I thought had been a detour. An uncomfortable leading to go to an unfamiliar place.
Seven years after saying “yes” to the detour, God brought it full circle – with dozens of teenage moms and their children hearing a message of hope, new friendships between Christian women from all backgrounds, ages, and denominations who served as mentors together, and shifted life trajectories – mine included.
That local YoungLives ministry has continued for the past 15 years. And even though I’m not on staff there anymore, I have gotten to watch as the babies of those teenage moms have grown into young adults themselves, former teen moms have become hairdressers, nurses, teachers, wives and leaders in their neighborhoods, new mentors and new staff have grown and been changed by their experiences, and the community has come together to support the ongoing ministry. The friendships between moms and their connections with churches and mentors still pop up on social media, and my heart grins at the encouragement and love that flows from those relationships that began years ago. Now they are the ones cheering each other on, giving each other advice, and encouraging each other – and me.
One of the biggest privileges of my life so far has been getting to watch one small, weak, but obedient “yes” to a detour in my plans echo into more and more yes’s throughout my life and the lives of others. And – the coolest part is that it hasn’t been about me or my plans. It’s about a God who reverses everything. A God who takes weak “yes’s”, unexpected detours, and sharp turns in our path, and turns them into a bigger, better adventure than the one we had in mind. A God who makes echoes of obedience bigger and louder, rather than quieter and more distant. And a God who reclaims and uses any life when given the chance – often, using the very detours we so dislike.
So I’ve learned not to put too much stock in my own plans, and when I hear an ask – the kind that rings out in my soul – to take the leap. I have learned that it is always a good idea to say yes to the God who brings everything full circle, despite – and often because of – the detours.