The Journey

Personal Essay
By Zak Cannard

My First Mistake in Youth Ministry
I am addicted to adrenaline and risk taking. I thrive on pushing my physical boundaries. Longboarding, surfing, rock climbing, skiing, and attempting flips off or over everything are my lifeline. I have jumped off a cliff over 70 feet high, gone down a hill on a longboard at over 45 mph, and back flipped off a three-story house into an 8-foot-deep pool. Some would call me reckless, but taking risks is a way that I enjoy life.

I am also a youth worker reaching out to high school students who enjoy pushing their physical boundaries as well. Until I began working with youth, pushing myself had been a decision that only affected me – and occasionally, my parents' insurance company. I thought little about the ramifications of my actions. I always trusted in my abilities because I knew my own limits.

When I am with youth and I take a risk, they begin to push themselves as well following my example. If I were to dive off a cliff, they would try it as well, even though they may never have dived into a pool before. But then came the accident that stopped me cold, changing the way that I think about youth ministry.

In high school, I was called to join Young Life staff, a non-denominational youth ministry that believes authentic relationships with youth are crucial in spiritual development. Toward the end of my freshman year of college, I started working with Young Life as a leader, going to school lunches to hang out with high school students.

For Young Life leaders, school lunches are times to meet and develop relationships with new students. Lunches are a venue to develop relationships and at some point, the 30-minute break becomes ineffective in allowing a relationship to grow. Kerry and AJ were two seniors that I met at lunch two weeks after I became a leader and soon we talked about getting together out of school.

Like me, Kerry and AJ enjoyed longboarding, a sport that includes riding an extended skateboard down paved hills for speed and a rush of adrenaline. One day we made plans to go riding after school.

Had I stood by my convictions our day trip would not have included an ambulance ride.

We met up at Kerry's house and took my car to a hill that they had enjoyed many times before. The road curved as it was surrounded by suburban houses with finely-trimmed lawns, perfectly washed windows, and SUVs in every driveway.

I stopped the car at the bottom of the hill and we began our ascent. At the top, we sat to rest and I offered to pray for our safety, unknowing that my prayer would come into play.

When I opened my eyes, I saw the long, amber-brown hair on Kerry's head. The word "helmet" flashed through my head. I asked where his was, and he said that he didn't have one. I handed my helmet and protective jacket to him but he refused to take them. He said that had done this hill hundreds of times. Not wanting a confrontation, I strapped on my gear without pressing the issue.

We stood perpendicular to the road with one foot on our board and the other on the ground. We were building up courage to lift up our foot and stand on the board, beginning our decent. One after the other we lifted our feet; AJ first, I followed close behind, and Kerry brought up the rear.

The wind licked our faces as we gained speed and flew past the houses, one finely-trimmed lawn after the other. Our speed peaked just as the incline lessened and we passed my car. As AJ and I slowed to a stop, we turned around. Kerry was nowhere.

Our first thought was that he had not attempted the hill. When AJ and I started up the hill for round two, we heard all manner of obscenities flowing from Kerry's mouth. We sprinted to his aid. He was badly hurt. After trying in vain to get him on his feet, we called the paramedics.

When the ambulance took him to the hospital, we learned he had road rash covering his body, and he had broken his left wrist, elbow and right collarbone. In addition, the doctors suspected that he punctured a lung. Not good. Not good at all.

Following behind the ambulance, I could not help but blame myself. I was wrong. What made matters worse is that no one needed to say it.

What makes me constantly rethink my actions of that day is that his injuries could have been lessened, had I been willing to be the "bad guy" in this situation. Had he fallen wearing the protective gear, his injuries probably would not have been ambulance-worthy.

I don't know if I could have been held legally responsible for Kerry's injuries, but his mom showed me an incredible amount of grace. Little did I know, but Kerry and his mom had previous arguments over Kerry's lack of safety gear. She also knew Kerry's past experiences with longboarding and actually thanked me for my gesture of offering him my helmet.

I am still in contact with Kerry and AJ and every once in a while we go longboarding together. They now know my feelings about wearing safety gear and they know they don't have a choice of wearing it or not; that is how it should have been in the first place. Being the "bad guy" in a situation is not always the most popular route, but if it means the protecting of someone's well-being, it is always worth it. In that way, being the "bad guy" is actually being the "good guy."

Swedish diplomat and former-UN Secretary General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dag Hammarskjöld once said "Never, for the sake of peace and quiet, deny your own experience or convictions." Before Kerry's accident, I'd been clear on my convictions; I just hadn't followed them. Now, I'll be paying even closer attention to those convictions and my own, painfully learned experience.